Noticing God’s Presence

Noticing God’s Presence

“Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place.
I can feel His mighty power and His grace.
I can hear the brush of angels wings.
I see glory on each face.
Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place.”
(Words by Lanny Wolfe)

It seems that the more I pause, even for just a moment, the more acutely I’m aware of being surrounded by the presence of God.  I suppose I could pause and not notice, and in reality that has been the case more often than I care to admit, but once I started to really seek God I began to realize He delights in making Himself known.  

My enjoyment of wildlife and scenic nature photography has served to amplify an awareness of God’s presence as I capture some of the details of His handiwork.  Today it was some time spent sitting on the front porch watching, and photographing, the hummingbirds that frequent the feeder we have out.  Capturing the “brush” of their wings really makes it seem like I can feel “the brush of angels wings.”  And the glory exhibited in each photo I take shouts of the glory of God revealed throughout creation.

For me, photography not only allows me to capture the presence of God, it also causes me to notice that presence in everyday life no matter where I am.  While it is rare for me not to have a camera with me these days, even when I don’t, I find that I always have an eye out for the wonders that are most often simply passed by.  Yes, the world is messed up by sin.  And, yes, there is a lot of ugliness that exists as a result of human interactions with one another that don’t reflect the image of God.  And while there are many distractions to draw us away from noticing God’s presence, there is nothing that can keep it hidden if we make the effort to seek Him.  His promises are sure and He says, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” (Jeremiah 29:13)

I pray that you and I would always seek God with all our heart and that in doing so we would know that “surely the presence of the Lord is in this place!”

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Good Grief!

Good Grief!

“Good Grief” seems like such an odd phrase when you stop and consider it in the midst of real grief.  So odd in fact, that I took the time to look up its origin in an attempt to understand just what was so good about grief.  What I discovered is that it is most likely the result of people substituting the word grief in the phrase they wanted to say in order to not take the “Lord’s name in vain” by saying, “Good God!”.  Since God observes the heart and motives, I’m not sure how effective such a strategy is — but that’s a matter for a different post. 🙂  While the research helped me understand the origin, it did nothing to answer my internal question of what good could be found in grief.

Anyhow, this is an article I have been working on for two years now and while I’m still short on answers, I do realize that the grieving process is natural and necessary . . . and often very different for each person.  And while the phrase was never meant to have anything to do with grief or goodness, I’ve begun to think that good grief is only possible when we allow God to change and transform us even through our losses.  But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself, so let’s turn the clock back a couple years and pick up on this journey to discover good grief where it began . . . or at least where it came to the surface in the most unavoidable way.

Two years have passed but I remember the day as if it was just yesterday.  They say my phone lit up with the initial incoming call while I was leading the closing prayer time at church, but it wasn’t until we were at Subway for lunch that I noticed I had a missed call and voicemail from my brother.  The message was pretty basic — call me as soon as you can.  The urgency in his voice took me outside the restaurant to return his call with great concern in my heart for my mom and dad.  The concern increased as he wanted to make sure I was sitting down, and then the news broke . . . it wasn’t mom or dad, it was one of his kids — Bre was gone.

I don’t know that I grieve in the way most people do, and I’m not sure that I’m even capable of expressing grief in the ways most people would recognize, but that day began a journey that changed not only me, but in some way it changed everyone who knew my niece.  While I can’t speak accurately of the changes it brought to the lives of others, I can write about how it has changed me so far.  While the day of the accident and the news of it is etched in my mind, the rest of the week is mostly a blur.  I readily and humbly agreed to “officiate” the funeral service and the week was filled with long days and nights as I prepared a funeral message while taking care of a major floor refinishing project at work.  The volunteers who were going to be doing the floors had been “reassigned” to a different project and I was left alone with my work and with God to begin examining what I would share with the family and friends who would gather at the end of the week, and to begin considering what good God could do in my life out of all of this.

The first thing to change was a renewed awareness of the brevity of life.  We’ve generally come to expect that “old” people will die and while we grieve their passing, it usually doesn’t hit us as abruptly as the loss of a young person.  While Bre packed more into her twenty-one years of life than most people do with many more years, it seemed there was so much more that should have and could have been done.  Yet this moment is all any of us have and what we do with it is what builds our legacy we leave behind.  If God puts it in your heart and mind to do something and you don’t take the first step toward that today, it is always possible that the step will never take place.  Loss brings us face to face with grief and grief is designed to bring us face to face with God.  What people do when they face God in their times of grief varies greatly, but God’s desire is that they would find comfort in Him.

The second thing to change, related closely to the first, was a renewed focus on spending time more wisely when it comes to making family time a priority.  The process of grieving caused me to reevaluate many things about how I used my time.  The “good” out of this grief, so far, has led me to be much more deliberate in spending time with my wife and daughter in special ways whenever we get the chance.  Things that consumed my time with no apparent benefit to me or others went by the wayside as I would head out to nearby parks with my family, and camera, to just spend time together in God’s presence.  Vacations and even spur of the moment overnight getaways have become more meaningful as we build memories together.  While this change began gradually after the funeral, it really solidified a year ago as I concluded that memories are what we hold onto when we are no longer able to hold onto the ones we love — so make good ones!

While I suppose there are many other lessons that I have been learning which are making good come from the grief, these two seem to be primary at this time.  While loss brings much pain, when our time of grieving is spent with God, He can bring good changes to us even through the grief.  Good grief?  Well, yes . . . and no.  The cause of the grief is rarely good, but God can make the result of the grief into something good in our life and through our life into the lives of others.

And so, for now, I close this writing with a photo that includes the poem God gave me to write two years ago as this process of “good grief” began.

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In the Morning, When I Rise . . .

In the Morning, When I Rise . . .

I woke this morning with a song in my mind that, well, that seems fitting to start any day.  The verse that has been running through my head says, “In the morning, when I rise; In the morning, when I rise.  In the morning, when I rise; Give me Jesus!”  The song has made me think about the days when I consciously choose Jesus at the start of the day compared to the ones that I don’t.  It’s not that I’m rejecting Jesus on any of the days, at least not deliberately, it’s just that there are days that I let the hectic pace of life push Jesus to the side.  When that happens at any time, but particularly at the start of a day, it isn’t long before my attitude and priorities begin to slide in a direction that isn’t productive to me or anyone else.

While choosing Jesus has to be a continual commitment, doing so when I rise each morning helps set the standard for the decisions that will come throughout the day.  Scripture says that “His mercies are new each morning” and it does me well to recognize and lay claim to the application of that in my life.  When I seek Jesus at the start of each day, I am made more aware of His presence because I’m looking for it.  While Jesus has promised to never leave or forsake His children, I have a choice as to how much I acknowledge and welcome that presence each day.  I believe that a practice of seeking God that includes a deliberate request each “morning when I rise, give me Jesus!”, prepares us for the final verse of the song, “When it’s time to die; O, when it’s time to die.  When it’s time to die; give me Jesus!”

As I said earlier, some days are easier to remember my need to seek Jesus when I rise.  For me, being up to see the beauty of God’s creation in the early morning hours serves as a visible reminder of His presence and fills me with a desire to seek Him.  The photo below is from a recent trip to northwest Ohio where I was able to watch the sun rise over Lake Erie and be reminded, “In the morning, when I rise; In the morning when I rise.  In the morning, when I rise; Give me Jesus!”

It is my prayer that you and I would desire and seek Jesus at all times and particularly each morning when we rise.

In prayer,
Tom

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No Longer DEAD

As I’ve worked on the sermon I’ll share on Easter Sunday at the North Wayne Mennonite Church, I have ended up with two different outlines. 🙂  One has more of a focus on what the resurrection of Jesus saves us from — death.  The other has a greater emphasis on what we are saved to — life.  Since I’m pretty confident they don’t want me preaching both of them on the same morning, here are the main points of the “No Longer DEAD” outline.

Because of Jesus we are no longer:

  • Distant — While especially true of Gentiles, even for the average Jew the approach to God prior to the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus was always from a distance.  From the time of Moses leading the people out of Egypt to the time of Jesus, the instruction from God to the people almost always sounded like “stand back!”.  Yet while Jesus was on the earth, His words more often beckoned people to “come to me, you who are weary and I will give you rest.”  When we are made alive in Christ, we are adopted into His family and are no longer considered distant.
  • Excluded — Sin separates us from God and excludes us from His presence.  When Jesus paid the penalty for sin through His death on the cross, the veil in the temple which separated people from the presence of God was torn from top to bottom.  God chose to make Himself accessible to all who were once excluded, should they choose to seek Him.  Remaining dead in our sin excludes us from life in Christ, but through Jesus those who were once “not a people” can now become the “people of God.
  • Aliens — While science fiction fans may first think of strangers from another planet when they hear of aliens, in many ways that is exactly what we are to God when we remain in our sin.  Because God’s ways are so much different and higher than man’s ways, while we live according to our own ways we are indeed aliens in regard to the kingdom of God.  Yet an interesting thing happens when we arrive as aliens in a foreign land.  When we choose to make that land our home and become accepted by its rulers, it becomes our home and we become aliens in regard to our former way of life.  Through Jesus we are no longer aliens in regard to God and His kingdom.  In fact, it is in Christ that we walk as aliens in this world.
  • Destroyed — Because the “wages of sin is death”, outside of Christ we are all on a path that leads to destruction.  The sin that we commit, whether large or small in our eyes, all requires the same penalty — death.  Because of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus our penalty has been paid if we choose to accept the payment being made on our behalf.  When we are in Christ, we choose to walk a path away from destruction and toward a life that remains eternally in Him.  It is through the goodness of God and His mercy that He has made a way through Jesus to destroy the power of death so that we need not be destroyed.

Yes, because of the power of the resurrection, in Christ we are no longer dead.

Peace On Earth

On December 25, 1863, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem, “Christmas Bells”, that was eventually put to music and became a popular Christmas carol. There are some stories that say the poem was written following the death of Longfellow’s wife in a house fire, which may be true, but that isn’t the despair of which he writes. The despair is a nation divided by hatred and war. His son had just returned home after being seriously wounded in a Civil War battle. The first part of the poem seems to speak of the “peace on earth, good-will to men” that he believed existed prior to the war. Then, in the middle of the poem, come two verses that were left out when the poem was made into a song — the verses which make it clear that the despair written about in the next-to-last verse comes from seeing a nation divided by hatred. The violence that comes from hatred has a way of drowning out the sounds of peace and good-will today just as it did in the days of Longfellow. The good news comes in the final verse with the realization that even as bad as things seem, “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep”. Even in a nation filled with reprehensible hatred and violence, God continues to offer hope through those who promote peace and good-will. Here is the last half of Longfellow’s poem, including the two “left out” verses.

Then from each black, accursed mouth 
The cannon thundered in the South, 
And with the sound 
The carols drowned 
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent 
The hearth-stones of a continent, 
And made forlorn 
The households born 
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head; 
“There is no peace on earth,” I said; 
“For hate is strong, 
And mocks the song 
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: 
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; 
The Wrong shall fail, 
The Right prevail, 
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”
(Poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, December 25, 1863)

New Wine Church

2016: Bonus Page (9/11)

Today I add a bonus page to my 2016 page-and-photo-a-day adventure as I remember the World Trade Center and the events that took place on 9/11/01.  The photo was taken by my friend, Scott, when we visited New York City and the top of the World Trade Center in either the fall of 2000 or the spring of 2001 — I’ve forgotten which.  As I consider the enormity of the towers and the events of 9/11/01, I share today memories of both the day I stood atop one of the towers of the World Trade Center and the day they were brought down.

My memories of the first day is of how impressive the towers were and how much their presence loomed over the entire area. We had taken the subway from Brooklyn into central New York City to visit Central Park. As we finished up at Central Park, the towers were so visible that we decided it would be an easy walk from Central Park to the World Trade Center — boy were we wrong! We kept walking and walking and for the longest time didn’t seem to be getting any closer. When we finally got there, we joked that since we had walked so far already why don’t we just take the stairs to the top. 🙂 Instead, we took the elevator tour and enjoyed the view . . . and the rest. Having been in the towers, and on top of the one, led to an even greater shock at the images of 9/11/01 of the towers being hit and coming down.

My most vivid memory of 9/11/01, beyond the actual destruction and collapse, is of our nation’s leaders standing on the steps of the Capitol Building singing “God Bless America”. For many, it was a sign of hope and unity in the midst of a very dark day. But also like many Americans, I was skeptical that a momentary turning to God in a time of great need would translate into a lasting change in the way business is done in our nation’s capitol. The 15 years since that day would tend to say that we’re much like the Israelites of the Old Testament who would cry out to God in their time of need and after God would show mercy and rescue them, it would just be a matter of time before they abandoned their relationship with God only to find themselves in need once again. But before we point fingers too far, it wasn’t only our nation’s leaders that had a short-lived resurgence in a felt need to call out to God for His blessing. And how often since have we called out to God in our times of need only to ignore Him once He has carried us through? How often do we find ourselves in trouble, even trouble of our own making, and and call out to God for help while making no effort to change our ways? We plot and we scheme and we come up with out best laid plans only to run into great difficulty accomplishing what we want. So, we turn to God and ask for His help. Yet when He says, “Follow Me, I have a better plan”, we say, “No thanks. I have too much invested in my own plan.”

I pray that as we remember the events of 9/11/01, that we not only remember the lives lost and the heroes who served, but that we would also remember a God who desires and deserves to be our God not only in the times of our greatest need but in all of our times.

In prayer,
Tom

 

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2016: Page 28

Page 28 in my life story of the year 2016 was a long one which is why I’m writing this the next day.  🙂  It was the final day of the camp conference that I was representing Impact Prayer Ministry at and it began with light fog in the valleys and the sun climbing its way over the far side of the mountains.  The more the sun worked its way over the mountain range, the more the fog tried to fill in the valley.  Within 15 minutes, the fog had spread all the way up to, and beyond, my 14th floor balcony.  As I packed up and left the room, the only view remaining was the hazy outlines of some of the nearer hills.

It was a great conference and I believe it was a good conference for me and the prayer ministry.  I went with a total of 4 boxes of books and when I packed up the display, all of the remaining books on the table fit in 1 box.  It is my prayer that as people go home, they will find the resources they picked up to be useful in their walk with Christ and perhaps even in their camp ministry.  As the closing session began, the conference did their final giveaways for the week.  I had been asked to “introduce” my contribution for these door prize drawings and considered it a privilege to do so.  My cameras have become incredible tools in the time I spend in personal worship of God.  I had taken with me a 20″ x 30″ high-gloss mounted photo that was a close up of a day lily.  My title for this photo art is “Consider the Lilies” and on the back was a label  with the tile and the passage from Luke where Jesus instructs us to consider the lilies and how God clothes and provides for them with great beauty.  As we consider that, He reminds us that we are of much greater value to Him so we should be confident in His care for us.  Having experience as a camp staff member, I was able to relate that I understood the financial pressures that often can seem overwhelming and even of greatest importance to others.  I encouraged this group of camp leaders that during those times, they should consider the lilies and take all of their needs and concerns to God first.

It was going to be a long drive home, so I headed out and began the journey.  About an hour and a half into the trip, I encounter road construction on the interstate that had it down to one lane and a back-up that led to a six mile stretch of highway taking 45 minutes to get through.  Instead of being frustrated, I pulled out a Dr Pepper and the rest of the package of sliced turkey (the same package, that I hadn’t planned on getting, from the first day of the trip) and used the slow crawl down the highway as an opportunity to have lunch and listen to some worship music.  I had my iPod connected to the truck’s radio and found a folder on it labeled “camp”.  It seemed like a fitting assortment to listen to as I headed home from a camp conference.  It was all of the music I had used for worship times, meal times, wake-up times, recreation times, and all other times the last time I had been dean for the 5th & 6th grade camp week.  The music ranged from “I’m so Happy” to “The Water Buffalo Song” to “This is the Air I Breathe” and everything in between.

After a quick stop south of Louisville to pick up my father-in-law, the trip home resumed.  This time my GPS warned me of a 45 minute delay ahead and re-routed me around it.  We reached the backed up traffic just as I exited to go around and it was still six miles away from where the signs said the construction was taking place.  I even thought about this being a lot like life — sometimes we are able to hear the warnings and avoid the hardships and troubles that would occur if we kept on our current path.  Other times we either get no warning or we don’t notice or pay attention to the warnings that come and we simply have to live through the difficulties, seeking God’s help to make the best of whatever circumstance we find our self in.  This takes us back to my photo and our need to always “Consider the Lilies” and trust God to care for us when things go as we planned and when things don’t go as we planned.

Consider the Lilies