White Dots on Granite

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Without the white dots, I’m not sure what I would have done.

My Sabbath Hike yesterday took me through a section of our local geography that we call The Dells, an impressive region of granite outcroppings northeast of our town. The trail around Watson Lake crosses through this beautiful and challenging scenery – my mind and heart remember the beautiful part, and my sore legs today remind me of the challenging part.

E78C9B42-7FD9-44BB-A35B-0FE8E57DA3B0The trail pretty much disappears when it reaches these granite boulders, and you could wander for hours in and out of the canyons. Fortunately, someone took pity on hikers and marked the trail with small dots of white spray paint. If they could speak, they would say, “This is the right path. Walk this way. Follow us.” I was grateful for that anonymous guide, glad that someone had found a productive rather than destructive use for spray paint in a natural setting. I trusted the dots.

My appreciation for those directions made me think of one of the boldest statements ever made by the Apostle Paul. In a letter to a group of somewhat immature Christ-followers in Greece, he said to them, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).

Think about that for a minute. Paul was laying down a series of white dots. He said to his friends (and to some who would not have considered themselves his friends), “Follow me. Be imitators of me. Take the path that I have taken, live your life the way I am living mine. It will be the right path, because I am following Jesus. In following me, you will follow Him.”

This is a far cry from what often seems to be the theme of our generation: “Don’t follow me. I’m lost.” In our attempts to be self-effacing, outwardly humble (though often inwardly proud, hoping people will notice how humble we are), we are quick to point out our own failures and inadequacies. I understand that, and there is a place for that kind of honesty, when it is authentic. Real people want to follow real people.

But Paul reminds us that there is also a place for confidence. There is a place for bold leadership, even when it rubs up against audacity. There is a place for those who say “I know the way, not because I’m smart, but because Jesus is. Here is what it looks like to follow Him.”

“Here are the white dots. Walk this way. Follow me, as I follow Christ.”

You may not feel like a leader, but I can almost guarantee you that someone in your life sees you as an example. Someone is looking to YOU to show them the way. Don’t shrink from that God-given role. Embrace it as an honor. You have an opportunity to exercise influence that will lead to their good, and to God’s glory. It’s OK to lead.

And yes, be open and honest about your own wrong turns. Share freely what you have learned along the way.

But then get out your can of spray paint, and boldly lay down a series of white dots that lead to Jesus.

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When the Path is Steep

What a difference a week makes.

My Sabbath Hike last weekend was delightfully easy. It was nine miles of strolling across a flat mesa east of Flagstaff, with plenty of shade and cool breezes – not much of a physical challenge at all, but lots of good prayer time.

FullSizeRenderTwo days ago, on Mingus Mountain east of our town, it was … well, let’s just say it was “more hike than Sabbath.” I should have seen it coming – on the topographical map that I was following (see the pic), the closer the lines, the steeper the slope. And if that weren’t enough, you would think the presence of a Hang Glider Launch would have made me realize that there was a cliff involved. But by the time I had completed the loop out Trail 105 and back on Trail 106, I had descended and then climbed over 1500 feet in seven miles in the hot sun, and I was a wreck. My prayer over the final two miles was limited to “Lord, how much further?”

I can’t say that the time I spent with God on that hike was particularly intimate or inspiring. But it did give me the chance to reflect on some principles to follow when the path is steep.

Steep paths come in many forms. I’ve walked several of them, and you probably have as well. Grief is a steep path. Illness is a steep path. Job problems, relational issues, financial stress, all create challenges as we walk through them. I did come away from this hard hike with some ideas for how I hope to walk those hard paths in the future.

  • Rest more
    I didn’t need to rest on the mesa, but failure to rest on the mountain might have been tragic. I’ve learned that busy-ness is one of the traps of the steep paths in my life. It seems like there is so much to do that I don’t have time to let down. But in reality, the level of activity in such moments is often more frantic than productive. Now that I know the importance of the rest that Jesus promises in Matthew 11:28, I hope to discipline myself to seek it even when my life is hard. ESPECIALLY when my life is hard.
  • Hydrate more
    An easy hike makes very little dent in my camelback water reservoir, but I drank most of it on the mountain. I needed it. In the same way, I need the refreshment of God’s word on hard days, but for some reason that commitment is often the first to go. Like the failure to rest, my failure to refresh myself in the green pastures and still waters of Psalm 23 makes those days even more difficult. I hope I’ve learned to cling to that commitment on the steep paths.
  • Lean more
    I barely needed my walking stick on the mesa – in fact, it was perched on my shoulder part of the time. But it was a crucial tool on the mountain. It saved me from several faceplants as rocks turned under my feet or my boots slid on steep gravel. It became my support when I stopped for a breather. Proverbs 3 warns me to not lean on my own understanding, and the writer of Psalm 71 says that he leaned on God from before his birth. I want to take those ideas to heart when my path is steep, leaning on God and what I know to be true of Him.

I’m glad that the pain of that hike (yes, there was/is pain) wasn’t totally wasted, and I hope that by writing down these ideas, I’ll be more likely to live by them.

And I’m glad that God speaks through the steep paths too. Because life is not always a shady mesa.

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God’s Plan is Right on Track

I needed that international trip more than I realized. It was refreshing in ways that I didn’t expect. And it reminded me that the global church of Jesus Christ is thriving, that God’s plan to bring good news to the nations is moving ahead right on schedule.

It began in Kenya, where my partner Dan had invited me to help train Maasai pastors to better understand and preach the Bible. It continued in Jordan, where we visited two families involved in ministry to refugees. And it ended in the Czech Republic, with a visit to a young family bringing the gospel to teenagers in that former Communist country.

Several experiences during those two weeks reassured me that God’s program is right on track:

  • The Maasai pastors in Kenya have a deep thirst for God’s Word, and are eager to teach it and preach it in the way it was written. They faithfully attend three of these 4-day conferences every year, at great expense in time and energy, and pass on what they learned to other pastors in their area. It was an honor to work with them.
  • In Jordan we enjoyed a worship service in Arabic, praising God in a language that is often used for tragically different purposes. We witnessed compassion for the neediest of all, seeing the love of Christ shown in practical and tangible ways to people who fled their homes with only the clothes on their backs. We sat among people who had lost everything, but found Christ, and would gladly do it all over again because the result is far more valuable than the cost. It was humbling to be with them.
  • In Prague, my guide from the airport to the train station was a young Czech man who had met Christ several years ago through a camp ministry that included people from my former church, and which is also a focus of my current church. He was an atheist when he attended the camp for the first time, but he said to me with a smile, “I am a Christ-follower because of that camp. I’m nobody famous, but I am a Christian, and it’s important for you to know how it happened.” It was exciting to spend time with him.

IMG_1466The two weeks went quickly, and I don’t think I really celebrated what I had seen until this last Monday, when I squeezed in a much-needed Sabbath hike (alongside this beautiful lake) and took time to reflect on the trip. The second song to come out of my play list was “Let the Worshippers Arise,” by Phillips, Craig and Dean (listen to it here). I ran it back three times because the words of the second verse were so perfect, and I sang it louder each time:

“Father I hear it growing louder, the song of your redeemed,
As the saints of every nation are awakening to sing.
From our hearts there comes an anthem. Oh, hear the heavens ring!
This is our song, a song to our King!”

On this trip, I heard that song growing louder. I sat with the saints of several nations, and from our hearts came an anthem. We sang it in different languages, but with the same joy. It was a song to our King.

I can’t wait to do it all again!

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Insights from the Empty Nest

When I became a dad, everyone told me that I would come to understand God in new ways, that fatherhood would provide fresh perspective on how He relates to us as our Heavenly Father. They were right, and our child-raising years were rich with spiritual insight, some learned through laughter, some learned through tears.

But no one told me that the empty nest would bring similar experiences. These have come unexpectedly, and they are delightful.

Our first daughter Amy is a wife, a mother of two adorable little boys (objective fact, not just my opinion, ask anybody), and a much-loved High School French teacher. We moved away from her and her family last year when we moved to Arizona, by far the most painful downside of that decision. We dreaded the inevitable loss of contact with her.

That’s why we’re glad that she has developed the habit of calling one of us on her way to and from work. I tend to be her morning call, since I am up and about at that hour, and my wife Murf usually receives her evening call. There generally aren’t a lot of huge issues to talk about. She just wants to keep in touch. I love that.

And it makes me aware of the joy that it gives my heavenly Father when I make prayer an intentional part of my life. Even when there aren’t lots of earth-shattering issues to talk about, it matters when I turn to Him. As the perfect Father, why wouldn’t He take pleasure in hearing from me?

Our youngest daughter Minnie is putting her tender heart and warm smile to good use as a social worker in Spokane. She came to visit last week, in the midst of a fairly hectic season in her life. As we drove to pick her up at the airport in Phoenix, my wife said, “I can’t wait to hear her sigh and relax.” Sure enough, moments after she climbed into the car and finished the small talk about her flight, she leaned her head back on the seat and let out a huge sigh of relaxation. We were her oasis, a safe place of rest and refreshment, a role that gave me a surprisingly powerful sense of satisfaction. I still smile when I think about it.

IMG_1349That moment came to mind as I strolled through snowy aspen groves on a Sabbath hike above Flagstaff two days ago. I had preached and taught five times in the previous two days, had another Bible Study that night, and was preparing to leave tomorrow for a two-week international ministry trip to three continents. That relaxing, refreshing time with God was an oasis in a hectic season of my life. And as I enjoyed it, as I enjoyed Him, I had a sense that He was taking pleasure in providing those moments for me. Why wouldn’t He?

In this season of empty-nest parenting, I have a fresh understanding of the picture of God provided to Israel by the prophet Zechariah: “The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing” (3:17).

I am so glad that I have that kind of Father. I’m glad that He rejoices over me, that He quiets me when I need it, that He sings over me. Those ideas boggle my mind, but they are true.

My girls give me joy. I’m glad that I can do the same for Him.

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The Fourth Quarter is Ours

My gray hair saved me 79 cents on a bagel sandwich the other day. Yay.

At 57 years old, I don’t yet qualify for the senior discount at Einstein’s Bagels. I thanked the 20-something cashier for including it without me asking for it. He responded with double-edged graciousness: “Well, I saw all the gray hair, figured you’d had a hard life, and thought you could use a break.” I was grateful – kinda.

I was smiling about that interaction a few days later, when I decided to do the math to see just how far I am into life. I have to admit that the results gave me pause. Since the lifespan of the average American male is 76 years, I am exactly three quarters of the way from the cradle to the grave.

How’s that for a sobering thought? I’ve already spent 75% of the time I can expect to live on this planet. My earthly past is three times larger than my earthly future. For a few minutes, those were the thoughts that filled my mind.

wpid-686c4d264195b117fb0e6a706700c43cBut then a picture from the sports world came to me – I’m headed into the fourth quarter. Any football fan knows how important that is. The game is won or lost in the fourth quarter. The first three quarters simply set the stage for the most important of the four. Many teams and fans hold up four fingers heading into that quarter, as a kind of rallying cry and reminder: “The fourth quarter is ours!” Teams that own the fourth quarter tend to win the game.

Inspired by that thought, I’ve made some commitments as I head into the fourth quarter of my life. If these apply to you, I invite you to consider them – feel free to embrace the ones you like. You are welcome to add others in the comment section if you wish.

  • I will cultivate an intimate walk with God all the way to the finish line – whenever that comes. Jesus Christ has given me something priceless in bringing me to my Heavenly Father and filling me with the Holy Spirit. I will not allow that relationship to grow stale. I know it can happen, but I also know it can be avoided. The discipline of Sabbath rest has added new depth and joy to my walk, and I commend it to you if you are sensing the need for something fresh – you can browse this blog, or check out the summary posts here and here. There are plenty of ways to avoid the stifling danger of spiritual routine, and I encourage you to search until you find one that works for you.
  • I will remain as physically active as my health allows. I know that we often slow down because our bodies break down. But in some cases, our bodies break down because we slow down. A commitment to healthy exercise can change the last quarter. I’m committed to staying as active as possible. The health benefits are obvious – and I’m a little embarrassed to admit how fun it is to pass people half my age on an uphill hike!
  • I will invest time and energy in the next generation of church leadership. Studies show that the millennial generation is eager to get to know those of us who have a little more mileage on the odometer, and I have seen that to be true. They welcome the discipleship process that Paul describes in 2 Timothy 2:2. I am committed to spending regular, intentional time with at least three young leaders every year. It’s an investment in the future, and brings great joy in the present.
  • I will stay out of the way of the next generation of church leadership. Every generation seems to want to impose its preferences on the next one. There are stands worth taking, but they are far fewer than we think. Most of the conflicts with younger generations revolve around personal preference, and I won’t die on those hills. These people need to lead in the way they see fit. I’m glad to help, but sometimes the best way to help is to make room for new leaders to serve in their own way. It’s what I wanted others to do for me 30 years ago, and many did. Now it’s my turn.

I’m excited about this next season. I have no idea what it will look like, but I’m eager to see what happens. After all, this is where the game is won or lost.

Hold those fingers high, team. The fourth quarter is ours!

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A Silent Scandal

Update: As I was posting this article this morning, my wife told me of early reports of the release of Pastor Saeed Abedini from his imprisonment in Iran.  That has since been confirmed, and I celebrate his freedom.

Today is Religious Freedom Day. I wish every day, in every nation, was Religious Freedom Day, but it’s not. Sadly, this is among the most neglected of human rights, and we should be ashamed of that fact.

We have opted to tolerate tragedy in this area. The world gives a collective shrug to the fact that so many people live in nations where religion is either imposed or forbidden. It is one of the scandals of our day, and it has to change.

Some justify their indifference with this phrase: “They don’t see things like we do, so we just need to do our best to coexist and live with the religious differences.” Why would we take that tolerant approach in this area, but not in others? The world didn’t tolerate institutionalized racism in South Africa – international pressure eventually forced that nation to change its internal laws and honor the basic human rights of all of its citizens. Today, we bring similar pressure on countries that turn a blind eye to human trafficking. We have often called for the worldwide respect of basic human rights, and have isolated and pressured countries that have refused to do so. But freedom of religion seems to no longer be among those rights.

When terrorists killed a dozen journalists in a horrific massacre in France last year, it rightly provoked a vigorous global defense of the freedom of the press. World leaders marched together in Paris to defend that crucial principle. Why then is there relative silence about the freedom of religion? Why does it not matter?

According to Open Doors, a global evangelical organization, 2015 was the worst year in the modern era for persecuted Christians. Over 7000 Christ-followers gave their lives for their faith. Where is the parade of world leaders for freedom of religion? Where is the outrage against persecution? The world is tragically silent, and sadly the church is sometimes equally silent. Both must change.

The Open Doors report on persecution in 2015 (available here) indicates that Islamic nations have the worst record of religious freedom. Islam is the dominant religion in nine of the ten countries most likely to engage in religious persecution. Even in what are considered to be moderate nations (and American allies), it is often illegal to abandon Islam for another faith.

But the Islamic world is not the only threat to religious freedom. I have friends in India who are caring for the orphans of men and women who were killed by Hindu militants in a wave of anti-Christian violence. Churches were burned, and people were killed, simply because of their faith.

It’s hard to believe that in 2016 there remain nations like North Korea (#1 on the Open Doors persecution list) where religion is an official target of the state. The 20th century should have taught us the horrors of state-sponsored opposition to religion, when tens of millions of people were killed for their religion in places like Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and China. Why do we tolerate nations that imitate those policies today?

There are glimmers of hope. North Korea is increasingly isolated. Moderate Muslims are speaking out against persecution – I have friends who are among them, and I admire their courage and integrity. Organizations like Open Doors, Voice of the Martyrs, and Amnesty International shine helpful spotlights on abuses.

But there are still hundreds of millions of people, maybe billions, who do not know what it means to have freedom of religion. That is a tragedy.

I will practice my faith today. I will speak at a funeral this afternoon, glad to be free to publicly give faith-based hope to those who mourn. I will lead my church in prayer tonight and tomorrow, grateful that I can do so without fear of government intervention.

And I will pray for those around the world who have no idea what that is like.

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Overwhelmed by More than a Canyon

IMG_0540 It was the perfect song, in the perfect place, on a day that could not have been much more perfect. For the first time EVER on a Sabbath hike, I ran a song back four times. When I explain it to you, I think you’ll understand why.

We’ve seen plenty of benefits to living in Northern Arizona since we moved here last May. Our ministry is exciting and fulfilling, we love our small town, the seasons are delightful, and we’ve had snow twice this month – yes, I’m still enough of a SoCal guy to be giddy when it snows. But that’s not all.

We now live just two hours from the Grand Canyon. We can drive there for the day! I never thought I would be able to say that.

IMG_0529I had my first Sabbath hike along the rim of the Grand Canyon last Saturday (the pictures are from that hike – if you click on them, they grow). It was awesome, breath-taking, incredible, and all the other adjectives that attempt to describe what is basically indescribable.

That’s why Big Daddy Weave’s song “Overwhelmed” made such an impact on me when it came up on my Spotify playlist (Spotify users, see my note below). It begins with the phrase “I see the work of Your hands,” and goes on to tell God how overwhelming it is to know Him. It includes a phrase that perfectly captures what tends to happen on my worship walks:

“I delight myself in You, captivated by Your beauty.
I’m overwhelmed, I’m overwhelmed by You.”

IMG_0538So there I was, walking along the rim of the Grand Canyon, hearing His creation scream about His power and majesty (Romans 1:20), and I couldn’t stop listening to that song. I had to let it express to God for me what seemed almost impossible to put into words.

Those moments reminded me of another unforgettable experience on a hike a few weeks ago. “This is Amazing Grace” by Phil Wickham includes the phrase “Jesus I sing for all that you’ve done for me.” As I sang, I realized that I had never truly done that – “all” is a big word. So I paused the music, and decided to give it a shot. Beginning with the moment I became a child of God through faith in Christ when I was 11 years old, I spent time thanking Him for all that He has done for me since then, in increments of about 5 years at a time. It covered 80% of my life, took more than 20 minutes to complete (if “complete” is the right word), and was one of the most exhilarating praise times that I can remember. I wish I had done it sooner, and I’m eager to do it again.

Good things happen when we intentionally put ourselves in places where God overwhelms us, and when we carve out large chunks of time to thank Him for ALL that He has done for us. Our busy lives will conspire to rob us of those moments. I’m learning, relatively late in life, to push back, and claim those moments.

Who wants to push back with me? You may not have a Grand Canyon near you, but I bet you have a place that shouts about God. And I imagine you could make quite a list of good things that He has done for you. Can I challenge you to carve out some time this week to be overwhelmed by Him, and to bring that list to His attention?

That would be a pretty good way to get ready for Thanksgiving Day.

(Spotify users, my Sabbath hike playlist is almost 33 hours long [and growing], and includes all kinds of worship songs. It is a public list, called “Sabbath,” and my user name is mikegaston. I invite you to follow it, and use it as you wish)

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