We Are Strangers in a Strange Land

My wife’s ninety-year-old mother died last Thursday and we mourn. Someone reminded me that when we grieve, “we do not grieve like those who have no hope.”

I grew up in a family that camped. My father was a pastor who got four weeks of vacation. We took all four weeks at once, camping the whole month of July, mostly in wooded campsites next to windy lakes. We strapped our small Sunfish sailboat on top of our sagging station wagon.

Williamson Family Vacation, July 1968

Those vacations were a young boy’s fantasy, filled with mysterious forests and stormy seas. Four weeks wasn’t enough. We hauled our home wherever we went. It was often hot, but sometimes cold, and occasionally rainy. The car always broke down. And I loved it.

I recently heard a quote from the Epistle to Diognetus that resurfaced all those old memories,

The difference between Christians and the rest of mankind is not a matter of nationality, language, or customs. Christians do not live apart in separate cities, speak any special dialect, nor practice any eccentric way of life…

For them, any foreign country is a motherland, and any motherland is a foreign country.

Invitations to Intimacy with God

Most Sundays after church, my father invited us kids to critique his sermon. He disliked “Atta-boys” and he loathed a “Nice job!” He loved to observe how we thought and what we saw.

He delighted—really delighted—when we said things like:

  • I think your illustration of the boy on a bike didn’t explain predestination well;
  • I wonder if your second point should have come first, and your third point eliminated;
  • I think the best part of your sermon was the final, “Amen.”

His partly wanted to ensure we listened to his sermons, sure; but even more, he genuinely wanted to engage with us at a heart level by hearing what we thought. Dad encouraged honesty and offered no repercussions when we criticized, disagreed, or misunderstood.

It was my dad’s way of inviting us up into his life.

Do We Practice Godless Faith?

I recently met an elder whose faith brought him great distress. Three years ago, his small but growing church received tithes that exceeded two hundred thousand dollars, for the first time ever. But this is the rest of the story.

After seeking God, the pastor, elders, and deacons collectively felt led to invest in their youth. In faith, they unanimously decided to increase their 2014 budget by thirty-five thousand dollars to hire a youth leader. But the next year’s donations only increased by a thousand.

The following year they again they sought God, and again in faith set a budget with the extra thirty-five thousand dollars. But giving increased by only two thousand. Last year, in faith they repeated the process, and last year’s offerings decreased by three thousand.

I met that elder a week after the board saw last year’s final numbers. He said, “I have never had so much faith in my life. The entire board had faith. Jesus said that if we have faith the size of a mustard seed, we could move an entire mountain.”

“Well, we had faith the size of the Mt. Everest, and we couldn’t move a molehill.”

Conquering Chronic Sins

My twelve-year-old self had a violent temper. My fuse was short, and my bursts of anger detonated at perceived-insults as unexpectedly as bursts of laughter explode at well-timed jokes. Without the mutually pleasant consequences.

I once chased my older brother Andy around the house with a knife. I don’t remember what he had done (probably something HEINOUS), but I remember him chuckling as he easily evaded my thrusts. His laughter did nothing to calm my storm.

I hated my uncontrollable anger, so I memorized verses about the angry man:

  • A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back.
  • Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty.
  • But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.

Whenever I sensed an outburst begin to rise, I tried to calm myself by repeating those memorized verses. It even worked a few times, but not for long. I soon boiled over again.

When I was thirteen, a friend offered to pray for anything I wanted. I asked him to pray for my anger problem. Six months later, he asked how I was doing, and I realized I hadn’t lost my temper once since he prayed. I hadn’t even had to fight it.

My explosive temper had been miraculously defused.

Since then, I’ve asked God to take away other bad habits, and he’s never acted again so instantly. He usually works slower, a little less dramatically, and (it seems) less miraculously.

I Cannot Do This Without Your Help

I write Beliefs of the Heart articles to help people see and know God personally. Many of you help me with this goal. Each week hundreds of you share the articles on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. I thank you. The articles are read by others because of friends like you.

I cannot do this without your help.

Would you consider helping in two other ways?

First, give copies of Hearing God in Conversation to friends, family, colleagues, Latest March 22 2016and fellow church members. I wrote it not so much for the spectacular (though hearing God is spectacular) as much as to help people nurture a deep relationship with God. We might know much about God, but we mostly need to meet God, to know him personally, in conversation.

For this season, the price of Hearing God in Conversation is reduced. The paperback price $11.35 (reduced from $14.99) and the Kindle version cost is $7.99 (reduced from $9.99).

Please consider giving copies to people you know who are hungry for more of God. It’s a great stocking stuffer.

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[I said we only ask once a year, but I know how we all forget, so I’ll send out a reminder in a week or so. But just one reminder. Until next December.]

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Sam

Circumstantial Evidence

A pastor-friend of mine once went through a series of disappointments. His favor with his followers faltered, his once fruitful ministry began to fail, and many of his former friends became his biggest opponents. And that was before events really got bad.

circumstantial-evidence

My friend was well known. If I told you his name, you’d probably recognize it. And his meteoric fall from favor was not due to any moral scandal on his part. Yet rejection and controversy, like circumstantial evidence against him, attacked from every side:

  • He began with a big splash and became famous in a few short months;
  • His fame attracted detractors, and major church leaders spoke against him;
  • His followers, who used to think he walked on water, began to drift away;
  • Then his treasurer embezzled funds;
  • Over time, his ministry crashed and burned.

And, of course, he asked God, “Why?”