Friday, April 19, 2019

Good Friday



By Phil Wood

Scripture: Psalm 23


Today, Good Friday 2019, marks my second full year of life since the night my heart stopped. It was sudden, out of nowhere – no warning, no pain. I lay down for a minute before heading to the Good Friday service at church and, when I lifted my head back up, everything was swirling.

There's a gadget in my chest now that takes over whenever my heart tries to pull those shenanigans but, for me, there's no longer any getting around the truth that any given moment could be my last. I'm not conscious of this 100 percent of the time, but darn close.

This may sound like a terrible way to live but, actually, it's not. It's the best way to live. Every moment is a gift to be cherished.

Recently I came across a quote from a man named Pedro Arrupe, a Basque missionary who happened to be in Japan when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Years later he had a series of strokes and wrote this in his journal:

"More than ever I find myself in the hands of God. This is what I have wanted all my life, from my youth. But now there is a difference. The initiative is entirely with God. It is indeed a profound spiritual experience to know and feel myself to be totally in God's hands."

And so I find myself, not walking in fear, but walking in faith. God and I have a deal: as long as he keeps sustaining me, I keep walking and trusting and pouring myself out. It's that simple, and that beautiful.

For many, it takes a lifetime of baby steps (with lots of backsliding) to even approach such a level of trust and surrender. For some it takes an atomic bomb and a series of strokes. For me it took a frightening stoppage of the heart. And I still forget frequently!

But as my new favorite writer, Anne Lamott, once wrote, "To have prayed to know God's care firsthand, without mediation, and to give thanks for the gift...to know that God's maternal hands hold one's life, like a baby...that is so not me, and is really all that I want."

Amen

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

It's All About Me



By Phil Wood

Scripture: Mark 11:15-17

One of the big Aha Moments I've had over my years studying Scripture is that, basically, the entire Bible is about me. Well, it's about God, and Jesus, but after that it's about me. Now, before you start with, "Oh boy, here we go again, it's all about Phil, everything is always about Phil, now even the whole Bible is about Phil," consider this.

I believe the entire Bible is also about you. Whether it's telling a story about millions of Jews in the desert, or about any of the singular biblical characters who populate its pages, or about our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, himself, the story is a message from God about whoever may be reading it. In your case, that would be you. In my case, that would be me.

Jerusalem is me. The wall of Jerusalem is my body. The temple is my heart. The whole Bible, from beginning to end, is the story of God and the relationship he wants to have with me. Like the Jews, I keep turning my back and wandering away. He keeps calling me, drawing me back. He keeps trying to show the Israelites how important it is that he be at the very center of the loving community he's trying to build. He keeps trying to show me how important it is to keep him at the very center of my being. 

Now, whenever I open my Bible, I stop and reflect for a few moments before starting to read. I need to be still, and know the great I Am is about to speak directly to me about something in me that I, personally, need to think about. This has made a huge difference in the way I read the Bible.

This morning I read the passage from Mark 11 about Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers and driving folks out of the temple who were buying and selling there. "Is it not written: 'My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations?'" Jesus asked. "But you have made it 'a den of robbers.'"

In my former days I thought this was a story about the righteous anger of Jesus and how wicked it is to do unholy things in the place that has been designated for prayer and communion with the Holy of Holies. But this morning I remembered the temple is my heart.

O, my God! I have allowed so many unholy distractions to clutter my heart, day in and day out. Politics. Worldly desires. Social media ramblings. And on and on and on. Father, overturn the tables and benches, drive out the buyers and sellers of distraction and the robbers of my soul. Make my heart a place of prayer as you have always intended. Make my heart a place of communion with you. In Jesus name, amen.

Monday, March 11, 2019

The Demon of Doubt


By Phil Wood

Scripture: Mark 9:14-29, Matthew 17:14-20


I have a friend who asks hard questions. "How can I give myself," he asks, "how can I surrender myself to Jesus when I can't see him and I can't hear him?"

I think my friend is a believer and what I think he's saying when he asks these questions is, "Help my unbelief!"

When Jesus heard a man express this prayer, "Help my unbelief," he ordered an evil spirit to come out of the man's son, and with a shriek it did. That man saw Jesus in the flesh. He experienced the healing of his son before his very eyes. He witnessed the end of a problem that had been tearing him apart for years. I'm going to surmise the man went home that day no longer struggling with unbelief.

But what about my friend?

Later, the disciples asked Jesus, "Why couldn't we drive the demon out? In Mark's version of the story, Jesus answered simply, "This kind can come out only by prayer." In Matthew's version of the story, Jesus' answer was a bit different. "Because you have so little faith," he said.

The man whose son was healed had also demonstrated a lack of faith saying, "If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us." When Jesus called him out on that lack of faith, the man (unlike the disciples) immediately recognized how small his faith was, and prayed for help: "I do believe; help my unbelief!"

Jesus answered that prayer immediately. In an instant, he not only healed the boy, he healed the father. 

I know my friend has to pray this prayer for himself, and I hope he does, over and over. In the meantime, I'm praying it for him, and for myself, and for all who are occasionally possessed by demons of doubt:

Lord, help our unbelief! Help us recognize when our faith is shallow and to pray for help immediately. Cast out the demon of doubt. Give us eyes to see, and ears to hear your amazing response. Amen.

P.S. Isn't it great to know you're praying for something that you know for sure is in the Father's will?

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Outposts of the Kingdom #1



 By Phil Wood

Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, "The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say 'Here it is,' or 'There it is,' because the kingdom of God is within you."
                                                                                                Luke 17:20-21

The last time I posted on this blog (scroll down to see), I spoke briefly about "signposts." The idea is that we Christians ought to be signposts, manifesting the kingdom of God that is to come by the things we do in our present lives.

Recently, that notion was reinforced to me by Dallas Willard in his book Hearing God, only he used the word "outposts" instead of "signposts." "When we align ourselves with the kingdom of Christ," he wrote, "we become outposts of that kingdom." He suggested that we ask God to show us how we can be outposts for the kingdom in our homes, our work and our neighborhoods.

What does that look like, I wondered. In my previous blog I mentioned Chuck Colson's work in prisons as an example. But we can't all be Chuck Colsons. How does it look for us normal people, in normal, everyday life? I asked God to help me keep an eye out for examples as I went through the days ahead.

The first example God showed me was my own sweet wife, Marianne. We were on a very crowded shuttle bus on our way from outlying parking to the terminal at DIA. Marianne found a seat, but I had to stand holding onto one of those straps and bouncing back and forth between the person in front of me and the person behind while trying to maintain possession of my briefcase and camera bag.

We were jostling along, intermittently accelerating and braking, when I looked down and saw Marianne sitting there peacefully praying. She's praying for our safe travel, I thought, as we would soon be boarding a plane bound for Mexico. But, no, it turns out she was praying for the woman across the aisle who was sitting there with crutches.

OTK. Outpost of the kingdom.

The woman probably threw her crutches down the next day without even knowing she had benefitted from the prayers of God's outpost on that shuttle bus.

A couple weeks later, we were at the urologist's office where I was undergoing a very painful biopsy procedure. When it was over, and I walked back into the waiting room, this was the scene I encountered:

Although it was a large waiting room, with many chairs, there were only two people in the room, seated just a few chairs apart. It was totally quiet. One of the people was Marianne who was praying intently. The other was a woman who, just as intently, was watching Marianne.

When I entered the scene, the woman turned her gaze to me, immediately discerning that I was the one being lifted up in prayer. Her eyes followed me all the way over to where Marianne was sitting, still praying until the moment I touched her shoulder.

Obviously, this was not a miracle healing. But the look of wonder in the other woman's eyes let me know she had gotten a little glimpse of the Kingdom of God – a kingdom where people communicate with God unceasingly out of love and compassion for one another.


Lord, may the changes you have wrought in us open the eyes and be a blessing to all those whose paths we cross in our daily lives. 

Friday, April 27, 2012

Old Song, New Twist


By Phil Wood

Steal away. Steal away. Steal away to Jesus.
Steal away. Steal away home.
I ain't got long to stay here.
                                                                                               
                        American Negro Spiritual

On a recent Sunday during worship I sang a duet with my friend, John. It was that old spiritual called Steal Away. Later, in the sermon, Pastor Bruce rightly suggested that perhaps the song could leave some wrong impressions if we're not careful.

I hadn't thought about it much till that moment. I was thinking it fit loosely with the idea of spiritual formation, inviting us to "steal away" from all the other things that consume us and spend some time with Jesus before it's too late.

As I thought more about it, though, the slaves who sang that song probably had a different meaning in mind. For them, it probably was expressing a deep longing to get away from this world of toil and pain to be with Jesus in the "Sweet By and By." Some people believe this and other songs were actually code-like revelations of real plans to escape (steal away via underground railroad)..."I ain't got long to stay here."

Either way, I can't say as I blame them, given the oppression they were suffering. But one wrong impression we could get from the lyrics today is that it's okay to simply pine away for the better life to come, without trying to do something in this life to make things better. That's not what Jesus had in mind.

Instead, Pastor Bruce talked about working to improve any situation we find ourselves in so as to create signposts of God's kingdom which will be fully realized when Christ returns. He used Chuck Colson's work in prisons as an example of such a signpost.

Another possible wrong impression one might get from Steal Away is the idea that heaven is some distant, ethereal place, far removed from this earth, where disembodied spirits float around in eternal bliss. This is not a biblical perception of heaven.

But rather than throwing away a perfectly good song, I propose we just ascribe to it a new meaning! From now on, I declare that Steal Away shall be a song that means the Kingdom of God is already here for those who have stolen away home to Jesus!

By getting to know Jesus, by following him and letting him teach us how to be like him, we become more and more like our heavenly selves, the selves we were intended to be, the selves we will be in that Sweet By and By. We, ourselves, become signposts.

Some day, Jesus will come again and transform the universe once and for all. He will make the earth like it was intended to be. He will create new heavens and a new earth, but the earth will still be the place we call home. The main difference is that God will call it home, too.

In the meantime, the work has already begun. God is transforming us, so we can exhibit the Kingdom in the here and now. That is, so we can show others what "heaven" will be like. This is true witnessing, true evangelism. A signpost.

The slaves, in their suffering, may not have been aware of it, but I believe many of them were doing that, too – exhibiting the Kingdom of God right here on this earth, right in the midst of all that misery. By living righteous lives, by teaching their children about Jesus, by not treating others as they were treated, by singing soulfully to their savior and putting their hope in him in spite of their troubles, they continue to be an inspiration to the world today. Their songs still touch our souls. Signposts.

May we have the courage to follow their example, and exhibit Kingdom behavior in our era, which has its own troubles. We just need to steal away. Steal away to Jesus. We ain't got long in this life. Let's make the best of it.

Lord, we want to be your witnesses, so others will see the great joy that can be theirs for eternity – starting now. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Who Are My Enemies?


By Phil Wood


You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil. My cup overflows.

                                                                                                Psalm 23:5


Last night, I awoke in the middle of the night and couldn't get back to sleep – too many things on my mind. My normal response to this is to squeeze my eyes shut even tighter and try to will myself back to sleep. This, of course, never works, so I determined to use the time to practice a spiritual discipline: meditating on Scripture.

The 23rd Psalm came to mind, as it's one of the few passages I actually know by heart and it has always been among the most peaceful and comforting to me. I slowly repeated the verses over and over, remaining open to whatever new understanding God would reveal to me.

When I came to the part about the table being prepared before me in the presence of my enemies, I stopped and wondered, what is this verse saying to me? I'm not like David, the author of the psalm. I'm not a king with people ever plotting my downfall. I'm not a warrior in the field of battle with someone behind every rock waiting to kill me. And that's when the aha moment came. I think I gasped right out loud there in the darkness, though Marianne remained in slumber.

What I realized was that my enemies are everything and everyone standing between me and a deepening relationship with God. And these enemies are indeed hiding behind every rock.

The "head enemy" will do anything to keep us from growing closer to God and finding out about the amazing joy that comes with that. He doesn't want us to know that being transformed into the image of Christ ignites God's love within us. He would much rather we continue blindly along thinking we're good little Christians just as we are.

While Mar and I were on our "vacation with God" (see April 9 devotional), our enemies were here piling up things for us to do when we got home – things that heaped coals on the hurry sickness we thought we had defeated while on vacation. Sure enough, these things have gotten squarely in the way of spending time with the Lord now that we're back. And there I was, wide awake in the middle of the night with too many things on my mind.

Who is our enemy? For some the enemy is over-commitment and hurry sickness and all the ways the enemy uses to feed that sickness.

For some the enemy is our own selfish hearts (Pogo: "I have met the enemy and he is us.") For all of us the enemy is sin and all those minions of the enemy who willingly purvey opportunities to turn from paths of righteousness.

For some the enemy is alcohol or drugs, or hours in front of the mind-numbing television.

For some the enemy is the never-ending quest to amass wealth and make their futures financially secure. We all have to work and provide for our families. But when these pursuits take over our lives to the point where we have no time for God, you can be sure the enemy is in there, slugging away.

Our enemy is everything and everyone who stands between us and a growing, deepening, loving relationship with the one who loves us beyond measure.

What God was teaching me last night as I listened to his Living Word was this. With the Lord as my shepherd, I am in need of NOTHING! Right there in the presence of my enemies, with all their guile, all their clever temptations, my Lord has prepared a table for me. Everything my heart truly desires is on that table. My cup overflows.

And with these reassuring thoughts, I soon drifted back to sleep.

My God, my Shepherd, lead us each into sweet, peaceful, loving communion with you. Nothing else compares. 

Monday, April 9, 2012

Resting in the Lord


By Phil Wood

Scripture – Matthew 11:28-30

I just turned 67, Marianne 66. And we are just now taking our first vacation. Oh, we've been on plenty of trips running around doing lots of stuff in other places instead of running around doing lots of stuff at home. Each of these trips has been energizing and a relief from tedium. But we've never gone someplace with the deliberate intention of simply resting in the Lord.

As I write, we're well into the third day of a six-day rest, and Marianne just looked at me with a very beautiful and knowing smile and said, "This is the best vacation we've ever had." We've never been on a vacation with God before.

We're sitting in the shade of a palapa and some coconut trees at the edge of the jungle – with literally miles of white, powdery sand stretching out in either direction – just letting the Spirit roll over us like the endless waves rolling up on the beach. Every morning so far, we've had this beach pretty much to ourselves.

Not even 100 steps back into the jungle over the soft, undulating sand, is our little thatch-roof cabana with nothing but a king size bed, a shower and a tiny little porch with two chairs. This morning, sitting there in the quiet of dawn, I actually sensed how Adam must have felt. I was in the Garden, and God was right there with me. It was brief, just a flash. But it was electrifying!

Today, we've been doing our best to have a day of silence. We're just trying things – experimenting with some spiritual disciplines to see how we can fit a more contemplative lifestyle into our daily routine. This morning on the porch I practiced the discipline of solitude and learned that it can be a way not to be alone but in the company of my creator.

During our day of practicing silence, we have been learning to hear God better. I spent quite a bit of time trying the discipline of "praying Scripture." Then in the afternoon, instead of allowing my hurry sickness to push me into praying harder, reading faster and studying more diligently, I intentionally indulged in the discipline of "holy leisure." I slipped into the ocean and let God rock me gently on the swelling waves. Then I walked back up on the beach, sprawled on a mattress and just basked in his glory.

John Ortberg says hurry is a disease of the soul. If we want to grow spiritually, he says, we must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from our lives. Today I came at it with a machete. Big deal, you say. Who couldn't take a few bloody hacks at hurry sickness while stretched out on a Caribbean beach thousands of miles from his computer? All I can say is everybody's got to start somewhere. Today God helped me understand the importance of this step at a deeper level.

This week, Mar and I began to incorporate more spiritual disciplines into our lives. We believe this is the road to the center of God's heart and that, along the way, God has many important changes in store for us. We'll keep you posted.

Lord, let your spirit roll through the church like the waves of the ocean, bringing each of us a fresh new awareness of the many ways we can open ourselves to your presence, your gentle instruction, your abiding peace, and your amazing love.