Stop the Son

We are indeed going through a great trial — a fiery trial. In the very responsible position in which I happen to be placed, being a humble instrument in the hands of our Heavenly Father, as I am, and as we all are, to work out his great purposes, I have desired that all my works and acts may be according to his will, and that it might be so, I have sought his aid — but if after endeavoring to do my best in the light which he affords me, I find my efforts fail, I must believe that for some purpose unknown to me, He wills it otherwise. If I had had my way, this war would never have been commenced; If I had been allowed my way this war would have been ended before this, but we find it still continues; and we must believe that He permits it for some wise purpose of his own, mysterious and unknown to us; and though with our limited understandings we may not be able to comprehend it, yet we cannot but believe, that he who made the world still governs it.

—Abraham Lincoln, October 26, 1862

Wow! Do you remember when our leaders could write and speak eloquently? I woke up this morning to the brilliant rays of the sun blaring through my window—yes the sun rose this morning as my cousin Brian pointed out—and I was filled with a pleasant warmth and some hope for our future. I wasn’t hopeful because I was pleased with the outcome of our most recent presidential election—absolutely not. I was filled with hope because the sun did in fact rise and I was reminded that, as President Lincoln pointed out, “he who made the world still governs it.” The orange buffoon our country elected does not and will not!

I obviously have my opinions regarding our new leader as well as the state in which our country is now heading. I’m worried for our Muslim brothers and sisters, for another blow to the progression of our women, for the oppression of our friends of color, for the valid fears present in our Hispanic family members, for the now potential marginalization of our brothers and sisters in the gay community, for the misguided direction of our churches, for this push for freedom under the guise of bigotry. Yes, I possess these same fears. I’m afraid that what some refer to as “great again” is simply a regression to a day when white American men controlled the direction of our culture—and in my humble opinion that wasn’t a “great” era. These are my fears, and it wouldn’t be honest for me to stand on this small, insignificant platform that I’ve provided for myself and share how I have hope without expressing my anxieties and apprehensions.

That being said, I revert to the fact that God is ultimately in control and I’m inspired by these wonderful words of Abraham Lincoln: “I have desired that all my works and acts may be according to his will, and that it might be so, I have sought his aid — but if after endeavoring to do my best in the light which he affords me, I find my efforts fail, I must believe that for some purpose unknown to me, He wills it otherwise.”

How often do we drop to our knees and ask God to to govern this world? How often do we seek God’s aid so that all our works be according to his will? How often do we accept that governance and providence with humility regardless of whether we comprehend it? Today, I’m faced with a decision. Do I accept God’s mysterious and unknown purpose and pray that he continues to govern this world according to his perfect and pleasing will, or do I collapse in fear and trepidation because our country appears to be going to hell in a handbasket?

Our good friend Joshua doesn’t refrain from asking God to govern the world—even when that governance defies the laws of physics. In order to have more daylight to fight the Amorites, Joshua asks God to cause the sun and moon to stand still for an entire day (Joshua 10:12-14). This story isn’t about how God stopped the rotation of the earth and still managed to maintain the planet’s gravitational pull. It’s about God’s ultimate control of the universe and our part in God’s providence. God wants us to trust in him and in his sovereignty so much that we can expect God to turn yellow into blue or a circle into a square. If God can make a duck sink (Monty Python reference), he surely can protect our world from the inevitable mishaps of Cheeto Hitler. Yet, we must do our part. We must unremittingly seek God’s aid and PRAY, PRAY, PRAY that we are lined up with God’s will—even though with our limited understandings we may not be able to comprehend it.

I’ve been talking about prayer a lot lately, and it is still on the forefront of my mind. Joshua prayed to God for an extra day of sunlight and God answered Joshua by defying the laws of physics. How much more will God answer me when I pray for the healing of my mom, the healing of our nation, and the healing of our leadership. My friend Brent sent me this great quote by Andrew Murray this morning, “We must begin to believe that God, in the mystery of prayer, has entrusted us with a force that can move the Heavenly world, and can bring its power down to earth.” I’m not praying for the sun to stop, but I am praying for the Son of God to stop and look around. I’m praying for the Son to stop to shine his face upon me, my mother, my country, and my world. I’m praying for the Son to stop and remove the plague from my mother’s organs. I’m praying for the Son to stop and remove the plague of divisiveness and hatred that is taking over this country. I’m praying for the Son to stop and fill this world with His redemption in all areas—bringing us together in love and unity. I’m praying…

Son! Stop! Look! Listen! Help! Heal! Redeem!

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Bothering God

I was convinced that I fell in love for the first time in the summer of ‘95. She was strong, sexy, kind, and hung up on her ex-boyfriend. Perhaps I was once attracted to women with more issues than a magazine rack. My mom can probably attest to the truth in that statement. Melissa never reciprocated my affections, but she did convince me to change from briefs to boxer briefs. In hindsight, this undergarment recommendation was far more beneficial to my well-being than her love would have been.

Melissa and I worked together for the University custodial department. We had deep and meaningful conversations while washing carpets and cleaning toilets. I recall one conversation in particular. Melissa had trouble sleeping. Her ex-boyfriend had moved on to another and didn’t want anything to do with her. That caused her stress and anxiety. She couldn’t relax and suffered from insomnia. I spoke with her that day about prayer and how when I pray before I go to bed, it helps calm my spirit and releases some anxiety. That night, after working a shift at Walmart, I prayed that God would help Melissa overcome her anxiety and give her a good night’s sleep.

My faith journey has endured several peaks and valleys, as is the case with everyone. College was definitely a time of mountaintop experiences, when my faith in God and my conviction in the effectiveness of prayer was at its highest.

That next morning, as Melissa and I were gathering our cleaning supplies, I exclaimed without an inkling of doubt, “You slept well last night, didn’t you!”

Surprised with my absolute assurance, Melissa inquired as to how I knew.

I answered her by simply saying, “I prayed for you.”

This of course sparked a week-long discussion about God’s will and the power of prayer. Discussions where Melissa brought up numerous situations where God doesn’t answer prayers—prayers she so earnestly wanted God to answer as well as questions as to why God would give a flying rats behind about her self-imposed restless nights or not care about suffering victims of abuse or starving children in the Sudan.

As I reflect on that day, I realize that I used to bring everything—and I mean everything—to God in prayer. Furthermore, I was convinced God was listening and that God cared.

Last week, my mom reminded me of a time when I was young and we were visiting the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, Nebraska. We were so excited for our day, but unfortunately God decided to rain on our parade. Convinced that God and I went way back and God would surely grant my wishes, I proceeded to step inside the ape exhibit, fall to my knees, and pray. I asked God to break up the clouds and postpone this rain storm for another day—a day when other kids wanted to enjoy the zoo, but not us. After an intense prayer session—I’m sure I was sweating drops of blood—I stepped out into the rain, held my hands out, and waited for the rain to stop—which it did. I simply looked up at the sky and shook my head in affirmation. Of course God answered my prayer. We went way back.

Today, a restful night for a neurotic 21-year-old and a sunny day at the zoo seem to be ridiculous prayer requests. To me, it’s like bothering God to help the Vikings defeat the Packers this Sunday night. We all know God’s a hockey fan anyway, right?

That’s where I’ve come. I pray for important things like my mother’s health, for my friend to find a job, or my kids to become functional adults who adore Jesus. I figure why bother God with the mundane or the things I can take care of myself. If I need some sleep, I drink a beer, take a hot shower, and go to sleep. If it rains, I reschedule my trip to the zoo. What happened to my faith in God’s providence for all things as well as my conviction in the strength of our relationship?

After Joshua and the Israelite army defeated the town of Ai, all the kings west of the Jordan came together to wage war against Joshua and Israel. However, the people of Gibeon decided that a different approach was necessary in order to live, and I have to say, they were brilliant. They decided to dress up in worn old clothes and patched up sandals. They loaded up their donkeys with worn-out sacks and old wineskins that were cracked and mended. All the bread in their food supply was dry and moldy. They then went to make a treaty with Joshua telling him they decided to travel from a distant country after hearing about their fame and the power of their God.

If you recall, God commanded Joshua and the Israelites to kill and destroy all the people in the Promised Land. Therefore, one could conclude that anyone from a distant country could be spared. After inquiring of these people, they showed Joshua their moldy bread, old wineskins, and shabby clothes. Apparently—and to the relief of the Gibeonites—the Israelites ate their moldy bread, but didn’t pray about it, so Joshua let them live and made a treaty of peace with them (Joshua 9).

It seemed obvious to Joshua and the Israelites. These people had shabby clothes and moldy bread. “Why should we pray in this situation? It’s common sense.” Joshua decided to make a treaty with these “obvious” foreigners without praying to God about them first. This was a mistake. Apparently, God wants us to pray about the big stuff, the small stuff, the obvious stuff, the mundane stuff, and the annoying stuff.

I’m reminded of a parable Jesus told his disciples in order to illustrate the importance of persistent prayer. Basically, a widow kept bothering a corrupt judge until he finally caved and gave her what she needed. Jesus pointed out that if this corrupt judge—who didn’t care about anything—gave the widow what she needed because of her persistence, how much more would God—who is just and compassionate—give us what we need when we are persistent (Luke 18:1-8).

Obviously, God doesn’t always give us what we want or think we need. If this were the case, there would be 31 Super Bowl champions every year (that’s 31 because MY God would never help the Packers win), no one would be sick, everyone would have well-disciplined kids and super awesome spouses, and we’d all be millionaires. This fact doesn’t mean, however, that God wants us to give up or just pray about those things we feel are suited for God and take care of the “minor” issues ourselves. We’ve been discussing this topic—for what seem like forever—in my men’s Bible study group every Friday morning. As we continue to mull over these difficult issues surrounding prayer, I’ve found some understanding in these words of Dallas Willard from page 242 of The Divine Conspiracy: “Prayer is never just asking, nor is it merely a matter of asking for what I want. God is not a cosmic butler or fix-it man, and the aim of the universe is not to fulfill my desires and needs. On the other hand, I am to pray for what concerns me…”[1]

Prayer still confuses me, and ten years from now when my men’s study group is working through page 250 of The Divine Conspiracy, I’m sure the muddied waters won’t be any clearer. One thing I have concluded is God wants to walk with me and talk with me, and by conversing with God, the two of us can begin to understand one another. I can begin to understand God’s will for my life and God will understand my needs, passions, and concerns. Through this intimacy, I hope I can make sense as to why people I love suffer or people who don’t deserve it thrive. So even if everything in life seems as meaningless to me as it does to the Teacher who wrote Ecclesiastes (Ecclesiastes 12:8), I will follow the Teacher’s lead and continue to fear God, walk with God, and “in EVERY situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present [my] requests to God.” Because when I do, God promises me “peace” that will “transcend all understanding” (Philippians 4:6-7).

And that’s pretty cool!

[1] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (New York: HarperCollins, 1997), 242.


A Tale of Two Cities

“Be back here by 5:00 so you have time to shower before supper!” Mom exclaimed as my brother Chad and I leapt off the front porch, landed in a leg-extended gait, and sprinted to the barn.

“We will!” we screamed.

The farm had a plethora of exciting adventures in the offing. We could spend countless hours building forts in the hay mow, collecting tadpoles in the ponds of the pastures, sing to the heifers (always a captivating audience no matter how awful the performance), or play in the grove. The grove offered two attractions. We could play in a tactically built treehouse that offered ladders, ropes, and swings or we could venture into the forbidden areas of the grove—a heap of garbage and an old hole under collapsed concrete (The remnants of an underground bunker my uncle Verlyn had accidently bombed from the inside from the fumes of cattails soaked in gasoline). The treehouse was safe and fun, but it lacked some of the adventure and excitement that one could easily encounter in the dangerous bunker or the heap of garbage. While Chad swung from the rope in the treehouse, I ventured over and started sifting through the garbage heap. Chad immediately joined me. It was forbidden; it was unsafe; it could cause injury or even death; it was exciting; it was an adventure! What is it about the human spirit that compels us to abandon the safety of the treehouse for the ambiguity of the garbage heap?

The night before attacking the city of Ai, Joshua chose five thousand of his best fighting men and commanded them to set up a place of ambush between the cities of Ai and Bethel. The next morning, when Joshua attacked the city, he planned to retreat and draw the king of Ai and his army away from the city, so the ambush to the west of the city could attack and overcome the unguarded city. The plan was successful, and Israel conquered the city of Ai and set it ablaze (Joshua 8:1-29).

This isn’t the first time we encountered the city of Ai in Scripture. Only weeks earlier, Joshua and the Israelite army underestimated the power and influence of Ai and they were routed by Ai’s army when they attacked the city (Joshua 7:3-5). Several centuries earlier, Abraham received a call from God to pack up all of his belongings and move to Canaan. Upon arriving in Canaan, Abraham first settled directly between Ai and Bethel—probably the exact same location the five thousand Israelite soldiers lied in ambush the night before the attack of Ai (Genesis 12:8; Joshua 8:9).

It’s peculiar to me that Abraham and the Israelite Army set up camp between Bethel and Ai—not committing to either city. The word Ai means a heap of ruinsand the name “Bethel” means, “The house of God.” Why do we neglect God’s desire to live within our hearts, and instead ogle the heap of runis on the horizon while anticipating the eventual ambush of the city and rummaging through it for treasures? I have to confess, there are several seasons throughout my life where I would rather dwell upon a heap of ruins than allow God to live and thrive within my heart. I fear that God’s presence will drag me down, prevent me from experiencing a life filled with fun and adventure—the life I frequently believe exists upon that heap of ruins.

We often underestimate the power that heap of ruins has over our hearts. God instilled adventure, excitement, love, romance, hope, and joy in every human heart. Like Abraham and the Israelite army, the illusory safety and boredom often associated with the house of God deters us from pitching our tents in Bethel. Instead, we are tempted to camp on the garbage heap of Ai. Often, the dangers and stench that comes from the death and destruction of Ai overcome our hearts, so we set up camp somewhere in between. We don’t commit to either, so we ebb and flow our way in between the life of Bethel and the death of Ai. Where did we go wrong? Who taught us that a life in the Kingdom—a life walking side-by-side with Jesus was uneventful and unsatisfying? Why do we envision a life within the presence of God to be dreadfully boring—lacking in adventure? Why do we perceive a life upon a garbage heap to be exciting and fulfilling? Who planted this notion that Ai was a place of treasure and Bethel a place of misery?

I have my theories. When I hear a boring sermon, endure the judgmental ostracizing from an elderly parishioner in a dying church, or suffer through a barrage of litanies while praying for the end of the service, I get why we avoid Bethel. When I witness people who claim to live in Bethel while spewing racial slurs and following bigots, I camp closer to Ai than Bethel. When the citizens of Ai are kinder, gentler and show more compassion than those in Bethel, I find myself pitching my tent upon the garbage heap.

Unfortunately, these “pseudo-citizens” of Bethel have given it a bad name. Arguably, God can’t dwell in the hearts of judgmental bigots, war-mongers, and merciless savages. Their hatred caused their hearts to harden, thereby impeding the Holy Spirit from finding a home within. True citizens of Bethel experience love, joy, adventure, and the thriving Spirit of God within their hearts. Imposters have prevented us from experiencing the joys of Bethel, thereby sending us to Ai to find an alternative that pales in comparison.

The treehouse in the grove can provide everything our heart desires. Joy, adventure, and true love can be found among its limbs, ladders, and rope swings. My prayer for today is to no longer oscillate between these two cities, and allow God to enter my heart to live in Bethel for eternity.

I want to dedicate this post to my uncle Verlyn—a man of God and true citizen of Bethel. Verlyn Vander Lugt discovered adventure, love, joy, hope, and excitement; not in Ai (a bunker filled with the fumes of gasoline-soaked cattails) but in Bethel (the Holy Spirit living and thriving within his heart).


Achan for More

While living in California, I ached to own a home of my own. I felt like I wasn’t providing for my family. Seeing as the purchase price for a small, two-bedroom bungalow was over $500,000, that dream could never come to fruition…especially if I continued to work for a young Christian publishing company. I often felt sorry for myself and lived in a state of permanent discontent. I coveted what others had and was rarely satisfied or grateful for the many blessings I had already received from God. I had a loving wife and two adorable, healthy children, a career where I could implement my creative gifts every day, incredible friends, and a great little home ten miles from the Pacific Ocean. Yet, I couldn’t cease from coveting the things I didn’t have. I would desire more, recognize the sinfulness within my own discontent, and then hide it deep within my heart. The aftermath was destructive. By internalizing my discontent, I became depressed. My wife, children, friends, and career were deprived of the attention and time they deserved because I was too self-involved. By hiding and internalizing my sin, others suffered.

You would have thought that by moving to Colorado and buying a home, I would no longer covet. That just wasn’t the case. The problem with coveting—and it has been the problem since Eve coveted the forbidden fruit and gave it to Adam—is that once you get what you covet, you end up coveting something else. For several months after my divorce, I would sit in church and watch other couples. I would tear-up as I coveted their lives, their apparent happiness, the love and affection they shared. I coveted nuclear families and the fact that their children would never have to endure the pain of divorce that my children had to endure. Their ostensible functionality made me sick; I even stopped going to church for a while because I couldn’t prevent feeling sorry for myself. I couldn’t circumvent my own sins to focus on the real purpose for being there. Then there was Facebook. Research suggests that social media can be associated with depression. On Facebook, we see these enhanced and premeditated images and status updates of other people’s lives, when quite often they’re far from reality. In fact, the images that ran through my mind at church were most likely false ideals. What happened, though, is I compared my own life to the embellished ideological lives I saw in church or online, and I envied these people while feeling sorry for myself. Once again, I internalized my discontent and began the downward spiral that only lead to darkness and despair.

There was only one solution; one way to escape—one door through which I could discover hope, light, and contentment. I had to repent and ask the Lion of Judah, the one and only Redeemer to remove my discontent from my heart before it forever dominated my existence.

God promised the nation of Israel a beautiful land of their own—a land flowing with milk and honey. By the time the walls of Jericho came tumbling down, that promise was the real deal. The Israelites were at an all-time high; they had everything they could have possibly wanted and more. Like I said before, the problem with wanting, is that once you get what you want, you end up wanting something else. It was during this all-time high where a man named Achan, from the house of Judah, repeated the folly of humankind. Achan wanted something he couldn’t have, so he took it, and then he hid it. Achan’s sin didn’t just harm Achan, it harmed the entire community. Soldiers died, Israel injured her reputation, and Joshua reached his lowest state of desperation. When Achan hid his sin, others suffered. Because Achan caused so much trouble, the Israelites took him, everything he coveted and stole, his sons and daughters, his cattle, donkeys and sheep, his tent and all that he had, stoned him and his family to death and buried them and their possessions under a pile of rocks. Therefore, that place has been called the Valley of Achor (which means “valley of trouble”) ever since (Joshua 7:24-26).

Several years after this rather unfortunate incident, the prophet Hosea wrote, “There I will give her back her vineyards, and will make the Valley of Achor a door of hope. There she will respond as in the days of her youth, as in the day she came up out of Egypt” (Hosea 2:15). Hosea was speaking of a day when we will no longer receive our deserved punishments for our sins. Instead, we will enter a door of hope. We will get to hang out in vineyards, drink wine, and never be discontent again. Hosea was speaking of Jesus. Someday, Hosea promised, another man from the line of Judah will open up a door of hope for all humankind. Where Achan failed, Jesus will succeed. Jesus will provide us with that escape from our downward spirals. Jesus will open that one door through which we can discover hope, light, and contentment. Jesus “will rescue [us] from this body that is subject to death” (Romans 7:24).

I’m relieved I have a Savior. If not, I’d be under a pile of rocks somewhere in East Bellflower, California. I’m not saying I’m completely free from discontent. Unfortunately, the enemy still holds that carrot of coveting out in front of my nose and coerces me into periods of self-pity and envy. Yet, Jesus is always there inside a doorway of hope, welcoming me to enter into his presence and offering me a peace that surpasses all understanding. And instead of aching for more stuff, I’m aching for more Jesus—because our stuff just gets buried with us under a pile of rocks in a valley of trouble.


Walls

A dirt clod tumbled past my hand as it gripped the small protruding root of an old elm tree desperately hanging on to the eroding hillside. I could smell the mouth-watering boneless, rib-eye steaks grilling on a built in BBQ pit just beyond the wall overhead. Like a scene from the ever-popular Looney Tunes cartoons that materialized from the television set in my living room every Saturday morning, the smoke from the BBQ pit formed an upside-down hand with one finger beckoning me to advance up the hill.

“You’re almost there Shawn!” yelled my brother, now standing on a narrow ledge next to a ten-foot, brick wall at the top of the hill. “There’s a tree over here we can use.”

My brother was the first to look over the wall. He climbed the tree and then boosted himself up in order to grab the edge of the wall. Securing a foothold on a small outcropping of mortar in the wall, Chad Vander Lugt peered over into the Promised Land—the home of a wealthy doctor. All we knew of this man was that he drove a Porsche convertible, he never waved to us while we were riding our bikes at the entrance of his private drive, and he didn’t have a lot of hair. His house was amazing though. He had a built in BBQ pit, a crystal blue swimming pool, gorgeous women sun-bathing in bright white bikinis, and two Doberman Pinchers guarding the perimeter of his property—as if the ten-foot wall wasn’t enough. It was like a scene from Magnum P.I.

Chad and Shawn Vander Lugt loved to dream about someday living on the other side of that wall, frolicking in the crystal blue waters of paradise, hosting beautiful models in snow-white bikinis, driving pretentious cars, and treating kids on bicycles like they were beneath us. That was the dream. If only we could overcome the walls that lay before us.

Walls!? I’ve heard a lot of talk about walls lately. From an orange clown on television talking about building an impossible wall between us and our friendly neighbors to the south to my next door neighbor complaining that the wall between him and his neighbor to the east just isn’t tall enough. Why are we constantly talking about building walls when God wants nothing more than to tear them down?

I was seven years old when I dreamed of owning material items and living the life of a pretentious, egotistical doctor. The wall between reality and that dream of wealth and material possessions thankfully no longer exists. However, I still have my fair share of walls…and my loved ones still have their walls as well. For me, the walls I want to overcome are walls of loneliness, walls of not being able to effectively communicate with people I love, walls of past hurts, addictions, and self-destructive tendencies, walls that stand between me and healthy relationships with God, family, friends, and lovers. I don’t want these walls; I want them destroyed. Currently, my amazing mother has a wall standing before her; a wall we all want to come crashing down. How can we destroy these walls that stand between us and the wonders God promises us? How can our wall come crashing down, revealing the paradise that exists on the other side?

After crossing the Jordan River and entering the Promised Land, the largest obstacle standing between the Israelites and their beautiful land was the walled city of Jericho. The walls of Jericho needed to be destroyed along with the city itself in order for the Israelites to fully receive the bounty of God’s promises. Now, they could have tried to breach the city walls conventionally by the use of siege machines, ladders, and fire. But they didn’t. Instead God commanded them to march around the city once with all the armed men for six days. Then, on the seventh day, they were instructed to march around the city seven times, with the priests blowing the trumpets. When they heard the priests blow a long blast on the trumpets, the whole army was to give a loud shout, and then the wall of the city would collapse. The Israelites did exactly as instructed, and when the trumpets sounded, the army shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet, when the men gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed; so everyone charged straight in, and they took the city (Joshua 6).

There are ways to attack my walls conventionally and they’ve proven to be effective. I could seek counseling for the communication problems I possess, I could continue to hop online in order to find a date for next weekend and not be lonely for a couple hours, I could put forth more effort into my relationships in order to connect better with the people I love—and I probably should. My mom could agree to all the treatments recommended by her doctors, undergo chemo therapy, and seek the best medical care available—and she probably should. The Israelites still ran into Jericho and took the city through conventional methods (sword, spear, and dagger). On the other hand, they relied on unconventional methods first…they trusted in God to tear down the wall before them, to breach that which stood in their way, and overcome their major obstacles. Faith in a powerful God is what overcame the walls of Jericho…not their own strengths, tactics, and methodologies. Faith in a powerful God is what will first and foremost tear down the walls that stand between me and the promises of love, companionship, purpose, communication, and joy. Faith in a powerful God is what will first and foremost annihilate the wall of cancer that stands between my mom and recovery. God promises us that, by faith, he will utterly destroy these walls that prevent us from experiencing freedom, and he also promises to provide us with the strength we need to march over the rubble and take the city because “[we] can do all this through him who gives [us] strength” (Philippians 4:13).


When the Manna Runs Out

The sparkling sunlight shimmered and bounced off the swaying leaves of the tall sycamore trees that bordered the long driveway that lead to our small two-bedroom bungalow directly off Park Street in the bustling suburb of Bellflower, California. Hannah strapped on her tiny, Sleeping Beauty bicycle helmet and wrapped her small hand around the left grip of her bicycle’s handlebar. She had a look of apprehension on her face as I maneuvered the wrench to remove the small nut that fastened her final training wheel to the back tire of her bicycle. After removing the training wheels, I stood up, grabbed the back of the seat, and looked up at the sun. The warm Southern California breeze blew through my hair as the hum from the 91 freeway oddly, and somewhat naturally, blended with the rustling of the sycamore leaves. The faint sound of splashing and laughter wafted over the fence from the next-door-neighbor’s children as they joyously played in their above-ground swimming pool.

“I’m not ready for this, Daddy!” exclaimed my innocent daughter still gripping the left grip of her bicycle’s handlebars until her knuckles were depleted of blood and appeared whiter than the never-seen snow of Southern California.

In my most compassionate and empathetic manner, I gently sat my daughter upon her steel steed, painted pink and purple with Disney princesses posing for their ancient cameras. Perhaps this paint job was intended to calm and appease the fears of any four-year-old attempting to ride her bike for the first time without training wheels. The façade of painted princesses on Hannah’s bike couldn’t provide her with any more true courage and necessary bravado than the eagles, skulls, and flames found on Harley Davidsons can for their riders. She needed the assurance from her father that everything was going to be okay. She needed to know that even without training wheels, her dad would still be there to help her, to guide her, and to pick her up if she fell over. We started down the drive and she peddled hard and fast. She was excited while confidence and courage began to course through her veins. I held onto the back of her seat the first time down the drive; and the second time as well. The third time, however, I let go. Hannah peddled and rode with the confidence of a seasoned biker, until she realized I was no longer there behind her—holding her, protecting her, guiding her. She looked back to see her dad standing at the end of the driveway, wearing a smile that stretched from his huge left ear to his enormous right one, and she immediately tumbled to the hard concrete drive. Screams rang out, tears began to fall, and blood began to seep to the surface of her scratched knee.

“You did it! You did it! You rode your bike all by yourself!” I excitingly yelled as I ran to pick up my fallen daughter. “Let’s get you a Band-Aid and do this again! You want to?”

Of course, the Band-Aid was a must. Doing it again was a never. She was done with riding bicycles. Obviously, Hannah was back on her bicycle the next day and riding it without training wheels by the end of the week. She learned how to ride her bicycle without training wheels and she learned how to trust herself and ride with confidence, without the assistance from her father’s hand. She also learned to trust her dad again…even though that took some time. Hannah discovered that her father wanted her to mature to the next level of bicycle riding abilities. Hannah couldn’t discover the wonderment that comes with riding a bicycle through dirt paths or along the Big Thompson River, if she never removed her training wheels. Looking back, Hannah now realizes that her dad wanted her to experience the freedom and joy that comes from riding a bike on her own.

After bandaging up Hannah’s knee and kissing it for good measure, I poured myself a tall glass of lemonade, sat down on my patio in the backyard, and listened to the hypnotic sounds of traffic on the 91-freeway. The hum from the traffic propelled my mind’s eye into a trance and I began to reflect on an important day in my life only eight years earlier. I was restlessly sitting in my car staring at a payphone hanging off the front of an ARCO ampm convenient store in West Pasadena. I had just descended from the high desert into the smog-infested metropolis of the Los Angeles basin only an hour ago, after spending the night at a North Las Vegas Super 8. I was lost…aimlessly lost. The backseat of my Cutlass Supreme was overflowing with my clothes and a futon mattress; the passenger seat was occupied by a full-backed 19-inch television set. In my hands, I thumbed through the listings of apartments and rooms for rent in the Pasadena area. My only form of communication rested in my wallet—a prepaid phone card. I knew I had to connect immediately with the landlords and owners. I had no way for them to return my phone calls, because I wasn’t going to stand by this payphone outside the ARCO all day. I hoped to check into a Holiday Inn Express that evening and could continue to try calling the listings. I hoped and prayed that God would direct and guide me somewhere—it really didn’t matter where—just somewhere to live for the next couple months and I needed a place soon—very soon!

Up to that point, I really didn’t have to worry about my living conditions. There were always people around who could put me up for a couple nights. God always provided for me—whether that be a job, food, or a place to live. At that juncture—at that ARCO—I realized that my Father had removed my training wheels, compassionately and empathetically set me on the seat of my bicycle, started pushing me toward the end of the driveway, and was about to let go. Never before had I felt so helpless, so abandoned, yet so free. Three weeks later, while I was sleeping in my rented bed in my rented room, owned by a very strange couple, I woke to the shaking and trembling of the Joshua Tree earthquake of 1999. A couple books fell from my bookshelf, so I walked over to pick them up. The peculiarity of my surroundings shuddered into the forefront of my mind in the aftermath of the earthquake and the loneliness I had experienced for the past month flooded my consciousness. I lost my composure and fell to the floor. I was wounded, so I screamed, cried, and asked my Father to bandage the scrapes caused by his abandonment. The paradoxical feelings of freedom and desertion confused me and I began to question God’s providence.

How can my God who promised to love, protect, and guide me leave me to fend for myself? How can my God desert me? How can my God forsake me?

After crossing the Jordan and entering the Promised Land, God commanded Joshua to circumcise all the Israelite men, because no one had been circumcised during the 40 years they wandered in the Wilderness. After the men healed, they celebrated the Passover on the 14th day of the month. “The day after the Passover, that very day, they ate some of the produce of the land: unleavened bread and roasted grain. The manna stopped the day after they ate this food from the land; there was no longer any manna for the Israelites, but that year they ate the produce of Canaan” (Joshua 5:11-12).

Suddenly, after spending 40 years in the Wilderness, having everything provided for you, God leaves you to manage on your own. I can imagine the people of Israel experiencing the same emotions I experienced when I was left to manage on my own in Pasadena or my daughter experienced when I abandoned her to ride her bicycle on her own with no training wheels. Throughout life, we continue to grow and mature as Jesus’ disciples. We encounter these moments when the manna stops…when it seems God has abandoned us and left us to fend for ourselves. In a way, that’s exactly what God has done. God knows the right time to remove the manna from our life. God knows when we need to experience an emotional disturbance in our life that will help us grow and mature and become stronger individuals. God knows exactly the right time to remove our training wheels, run us to the end of the driveway, and let go of our bikes. When God does just that, we experience the freedom and joy God has always planned for us to enjoy. And when we look back, God is standing there with a smile extending from ear to ear.


Tractors and Horses

Grandpa Vander Lugt emanated grace and compassion. He loved God, his wife, his children, working the land, fishing, and playing with his grandkids. One of my fondest memories of Grandpa Vander Lugt was riding on the fender of his Minneapolis Moline tractor. My brother would ride on the left fender and I would ride on the right. Grandpa Vander Lugt would drive us out into the pasture to check on the fence line or pick up rocks. I would hang on to the handle of the fender and let the enormous tread of the tractor tires knock my feet into the air. In hindsight…this was EXTREMELY dangerous. Who needs car seats when you can put your four-year-old grandkids on the fender of a tractor and let its gigantic wheels systematically knock against the soles of their tennis shoes?

Grandpa Vander Lugt also loved Case International Harvester Tractors. He loved them so much, that he wanted to share his passion with his grandson. Every Christmas, Grandpa Vander Lugt would buy me a die cast collectable, Case International Harvester tractor or farm equipment. I had tractors, hay elevators, manure spreaders, and gravity wagons. To this day, every time I look upon my die cast collectable, Case International Harvester tractor, I think about Grandpa Vander Lugt and remember the wonderful times we shared, the grace and love he exuded, and the fun we had together on his farm and on that super dangerous tractor.

Grandpa Van Hill served and loved everyone around him with strength, humility, and more skills than anyone I’ve ever known. I’m not talking about Napoleon Dynamite skills like numchuku skills, bow hunting skills, or computer hacking skills. Grandpa Van Hill could take a rake and a bicycle tire, and with a little crafty welding and muscle grease, turn them into a surface-to-air missile. Grandpa Van Hill had the most amazing sense of humor; he was always cracking jokes and telling hilarious stories. One of my fondest memories of Grandpa Van Hill is sitting in his living room while the ninth episode of Hee Haw played on the console television set. We would entertain ourselves (because Hee Haw wasn’t accomplishing its task) with pick-up sticks and giving Grandpa a foot massage for a quarter. Which doesn’t seem like much, but for an eight-year old in the early 80s, a quarter is a fortune.

Grandpa Van Hill loved to collect models and statues of horses and raise donkeys. There was something about jackasses that Grandpa Van Hill treasured. Perhaps they reminded him of raising his three boys—Grandpa raised his boys right and they grew to be strong, stubborn, persistent, and faithful—very similar to a jackass. He loved horses so much, that he wanted to share his passion with his grandson. Every Christmas, Grandpa Van Hill would buy me a model horse. I had Palominos, Thoroughbreds, Arabians, and Appaloosas. To this day, every time I look upon my Breyer Arabian Horse, I think about Grandpa Van Hill and remember the wonderful times we shared, his humor, his inventions, and the fun we had together playing games, massaging his feet, and riding in a cart behind his donkey Jake.

TractorHorse

After crossing the Jordan River, God told Joshua to choose twelve men, one from each tribe of Israel. Each man was to choose a stone from the middle of the Jordan and stack them up along the riverbank. This stack of stones was to serve as a sign, so future generations could remember that God cut off the Jordan so the people could cross from the desert into the Promised Land. The stones were a memorial to an amazing God who delivers them, protects them, and provides for them (Joshua 4).

Some people of faith forbid the use of any icon or symbol. Some Christians get bent out of shape over this issue. They believe that wearing a cross, building a church with stained glass windows, hanging a banner in your church’s sanctuary, and so on to remember Jesus or meditate on God’s deliverance, love, and grace is a violation of the second commandment—making an idol. I disagree. Here, upon first arriving on the banks of the Jordan and in the Promised Land, God commands Joshua to create a monument that will serve as a permanent reminder to God’s salvific actions and God’s providence. In the same way my die cast collectable, Case International Harvester tractor reminds me of Grandpa Vander Lugt and my Breyer Arabian Horse reminds me of Grandpa Van Hill, a cross can remind us of Jesus’ love and sacrifice for us or a loaf of bread and cup of wine can remind us of God’s covenant sealed in Jesus’ blood on the cross. It would be spiritually enriching if our homes were riddled with symbols, icons, statues, bread, wine, rocks, tractors, and horses to remind us of God’s love, God’s providence, God’s protection, God’s sacrifice, God’s deliverance, God’s salvation, and God’s promises. God wants us to remember—and having a rock, some wine, a tractor, or a horse to help us do that isn’t a big deal at all. In fact, it should be encouraged.

The Master, Jesus, on the night of his betrayal, took bread. Having given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, broken for you. Do this to remember me.” After supper, he did the same thing with the cup: “This cup is my blood, my new covenant with you. Each time you drink this cup, remember me.” What you must solemnly realize is that every time you eat this bread and every time you drink this cup, you reenact in your words and actions the death of the Master. You will be drawn back to this meal again and again until the Master returns. You must never let familiarity breed contempt.

—1 Corinthians 11:24–26, The Message