Toothpaste and Torment

Bobby was six years old, and he had an inquiring mind. He had been learning how to measure things at school, and his teacher suggested the class go home that night and see what they could find there to measure. Bobby took the challenge to heart. When he got home, he measured his desk. He measured his toy box. He measured his bed. He measured everything within reach. 

Then, while enjoying a moment of inspiration in the second-floor bathroom, Bobby thought to himself, “I wonder how long the wiggly white worm is that lives inside the tube of toothpaste.” Soon, under the pressure of eager, juvenile fingers, the wiggly white worm oozed its path down the sink, across the bathroom floor, out into the hall, and down the stairs into the living room, where the economy size tube finally expired. 

Bobby was ecstatic. It was only a moment’s work to walk his ruler along the gleaming white trail and record the measurement. “Now,” he said to himself, “all I’ve got to do is put the toothpaste back into the tube before mommy finds out.” Sadly, Bobby’s progress in physics was not as advanced as his mathematics, or else he would have known that certain processes are irreversible. 

His mother’s voice sounded from the kitchen, “Bobby, what are you doing?” A deep intuition alerted him to the fact that she would not be pleased with the long white worm on the floor. Frantically, he tried to scoop up the evidence, but that only made the mess worse. 

“Bobby!” cried his mother at the sight of the strange new design on her favorite carpet. “What have you done?” 

And with no further ingenuity forthcoming, Bobby—in typical six-year-old fashion—burst into tears. He ran full tilt and buried his face in the apron of his startled but kindhearted mother. “I’m sorry, mommy. I’m really sorry!”

Has it ever occurred to you that life can be a bit like toothpaste? It, too, flows out in an irreversible stream, and sometimes we wish we could put it back. But that cannot be done, and we’re often left with a mess we cannot clean ourselves. 

“If life had a second edition,” wrote the poet John Clair, “I would correct the proofs.” King David might have agreed with that sentiment. After his famous sin with Bathsheba and his murderous ploy to cover it up, he realized he had made a terrible mess of his life and kingdom, and he had no ability to clean it up himself. Yet in the midst of his tormented soul, he somehow knew that God did. In Psalm 51:1-2, he asked the Lord:

Have mercy on me, O God, 
according to your unfailing love; 
according to your great compassion 
blot out my transgressions. 
Wash away all my iniquity 
and cleanse me from my sin.

With true remorse and raw repentance, David ran full tilt and buried his shame in the apron of God’s lovingkindness. He understood full well that to get clean with God, he had to come clean with God. And so, the disgraced king cried out to God in Psalm 51:7-10:

Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; 
wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. 
Let me hear joy and gladness; 
let the bones you have crushed rejoice. 
Hide your face from my sins 
and blot out all my iniquity.
Create in me a pure heart, O God, 
and renew a steadfast spirit within me. 

David discovered that the crushing weight of sin was no match for the mercy of God. In fact, he went on to celebrate in another psalm the forgiveness he received from the Lord: “Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered” (Ps 32:1). God had truly made him “whiter than snow.”

Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus, received this instruction: “Call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21). “Jesus” means salvation. Reflecting on what Christ accomplished in his death and resurrection to make sinful people righteous, the Apostle Paul wrote, “Where sin increased, grace increased all the more” (Rom 5:20).

Ultimately, David learned that while our lives may be irreversible, they are not irredeemable. That’s true of your life, too. 

Thank you, Lord, for your merciful heart. I confess that I’m not a person with a small debt. Sometimes I willingly choose my way above your way, preferring my own glory to yours. Sadly, I have done this, like David, even as a believer. Yet, your gracious heart remains. Thank you, God. I am grateful that my forgiveness is based on your character and not my own; that it’s based on your love for me, not my love for you. If that were the case, I’d be lost forever. But you are the God who still gives people new hearts. Do that for me, I pray, and help me to walk in your ways. In Jesus’ name, amen.

Image Credits: shutterstock.com; pexels.com.

On Leaving the Nest and Soaring to New Heights

“In a desert land [God] found [Israel], in a barren and howling waste. He shielded him and cared for him; he guarded him as the apple of his eye, like an eagle that stirs up its nest and hovers over its young, that spreads its wings to catch them and carries them on its pinions.” (Deut 32:10-11)


For twelve years I had been breathing to my left side while swimming freestyle in competitive races. Whether it was a sprint, middle distance, or long-distance event, I breathed on my left because that’s what I was used to. It was easy, natural, and comfortable. When I got to college, however, my new coach noticed a good deal of wasted motion in my stroke. He said it was slowing me down and had to be eliminated if I wanted to swim faster. The only way for that to happen, he said, was for me to start breathing on the other side. The right side.

I tried it, and I hated it. Breathing on my right was not easy, natural, or comofrtable, and I couldn’t get the hang of it. At practice, I would get disoriented, swim crooked, scrape the lane ropes, and swallow a whole lot of water over the span of three hours. I would go home sick every night. Swimming was no longer fun. In fact, it was sheer drudgery. I started despising my coach, and I wanted to quit. No scholarship was worth the pain brought on by that one alteration in my stroke.

But a funny thing happened after a few months of breathing to the right. Little by little my times kept dropping. I was getting faster. I was winning more races. I started having fun again. And I began to think, “Maybe my coach knows what he’s talking about.” As it turns out, he did. Eventually, I had to eat humble pie and recant my despisals.

I can’t say it ever felt completely natural for me to breathe to the right, but it worked. It just took some extra focus, energy, and perseverance during that initial period of change. Even today when I swim, I revert to left-side breathing when I get tired because it’s easier. It’s my default position, and it’s still comfortable for me. But if I want to hit top speed, I have to breathe on the right to make it happen.

So it is in life. Personal growth can hurt. Changing our ways can be uncomfortable. Surrendering our persoanl paradigms to embrace a new ones can be challenging. In my particular field—theological higher education—things are changing rapidly, and a lots of faculty members across the nation are having to learn new ways of teaching and facilitating learning. The same is true for the church at large—an instution known for changing at the speed of molasses. But nearly every industry has been forced to make significant changes lately, especially in light of globalization, the digital revolution, and now a worldwide pandemic. As many have discovered, changing is hard, but not changing is fatal.

The same dynamic can be true spiritually. Deuteronomy 32:11 tells us that God is “like an eagle that stirs up its nest and hovers over its young.” In other words, God can sometimes press changes on us in ways that make us uncomfortable. In the process, they can make him as unpopular as my swim coach was to me when he first made me breathe to the right. How so?

When an eagle builds a nest, it uses not only twigs and sticks, but also rocks, pebbles, and thorns. Initially, these sharp objects are covered by down feathers from the mother eagle. But as her eaglets grow, she intentionally “stirs up” the nest, removing the feathery cushion and exposing the rocks and thorns. They baby birds don’t like it. They get jabbed and stabbed, but mama bird has a purpose. She’s intentionally making it too uncomfortable for her children to stay in the nest. Indeed, she’s getting them ready to launch. 

Mama bird knows there’s so much more to life for her children than staying safe in a familiar nest all their days. There’s a world of soaring flight and adventure to enjoy outside. It’s the picture of a wise parent helping the young ones grow beyond their fears. It’s also the picture of God launching his people into new adventures that require a step of faith. 

Might God be calling you to take step? To leave the nest? To soar to a new place of adventure with him? Maybe it’s a new job. A new ministry. A new social group. A new degree program. A new way of thinking. It might not be comfortable at first, but it’s part of his good and wise plan to launch us into flight. 

We have to recognize that God is “stirring our nest” in love, not cruelty. He really is for us not against us, even in the midst of transition and change. Max Depree has said, “We cannot become what we want by remaining what we are.” Change is indeed hard, and it comes with a certain degree of mystery. We wonder, “Where is this going to lead? How will it all turn out in the end?” But as Bob Goff says, “Embrace uncertainty. Some of the most beautiful chapters in our lives won’t have a title until much later.” Well said.

Are you still jittery about taking a step? If so, take comfort in the rest of Deuteronomy 32:11. The eagle “spreads its wings to catch them and carries them on its pinions.” In other words, God won’t drop us. He may stretch us in faith, but he’ll never abandon us. So, let’s get ready to soar with him. He’s got this. And he’s got us.

God of grace and God of glory,
On thy people pour thy power;
Crown the ancient church’s story;
Bring its bud to glorious flower.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
For the facing of this hour,
For the facing of this hour.

Harry Emerson Fosdick


Image Credits: shutterstock.com.

Bookends of Grace

It’s interesting to note that David’s name is mentioned in the New Testament, but Shimei’s is not.

Shimei? Who’s that?

Exactly.

Shimei was one of David’s severest critics and verbal tormentors (cf. 2 Samuel 16). He delighted in publicly cursing the man whom God had called and anointed to lead his people. On one occasion he even pelted the king and his men with stones.

david-shimeiShimei was way out of line. Still, the critic had a point. David, of course, had failed miserably a few times, both in his leadership and in his moral life, so Shimei was partly right.

Dead right. (Isn’t it scary that we can sometimes be right in a wrong way?) Amazingly, David brushed him off and went to God for strength. It’s a good thing for Shimei that he did. When given the opportunity to kill the guy, David refused to execute him for his slander, abuse, and hostility.

He even forgave the rascal and granted him amnesty. Who does that?

  • A man after God’s own heart (Acts 13:22).
  • A man who had deeply repented of his own sin (Psalm 51).
  • A man who himself had received of God’s free grace (Psalm 32).
  • A man who had a rock-solid faith in God and a hope-filled destiny (Psalm 3).

Maybe that’s why the Holy Spirit ensured that David would be the first and last human name in the New Testament (Matthew 1:1; Revelation 22:16). It’s a phenomenon seemingly rooted in more than just literary happenstance.

The Holy Spirit ensured that David would be the first and last human name in the New Testament.

Outside the names for deity, David’s name opens and closes the New Testament. Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega—the A and the Z—but David is the B and the Y.

Indeed, the literary game Matthew plays with the number 14 in Jesus’ genealogy (Matthew 1:1-17) corresponds to the numerical value of David’s name in Hebrew (D=4 + V=6 + D=4). Matthew’s point is hard to miss: “I give you Jesus, the Messiah, the son of David.” Christ is the long-awaited fulfillment of the Davidic covenant (2 Samuel 7).

But how is it possible for David to receive such an honor given the various ways in whichking-david-bust he had failed the Lord? We may not have any other answer to that question but that God is God. In his infinite wisdom, God chose to bookend the story of Jesus with reminders of a flawed leader for whom Christ also died. The very layout of the New Testament shows us that Jesus is truly “the friend of sinners” (cf. Matt 11:19; Luke 7:34). Jesus, the perfect king, lovingly and literarily envelops his people. That should give all of us hope.

Yes, David endured certain consequences for his sins (some inflicted by the likes of Shimei), but he never lost his kingship, he never lost his calling, he never lost his relationship with God, and he never lost his pen.

While Shimei was out publicly slandering David because of his flaws, David was writing sacred Scripture. Keep that in mind next time you hear that your enemies are gloating over you because of your failures.

While Shimei was out publicly slandering David because of his flaws, David was writing sacred Scripture.

Just keep doing what God told you to do because his judgments are vastly different from man’s judgments.

Shimei who?

God of all grace, thank you for your grace. Grant me the grace to receive your grace, and the grace to be a conduit of it to others. Amen.

Who Asked for Your Two Cents?

Divine math is different from what we learned in school. That’s a comfort to those of us who sometimes find it hard to reconcile our checkbooks with our bank statement. But what if we totally drained our account one day and had nothing left to reconcile? What’s our net worth then? The answer might surprise us.

Mark records the story of a poor widow who put “two very small copper coins” into the temple treasury (Mark 12:42). Surprisingly, Jesus tells his disciples that she “put in more than all the others.” At first blush it’s an odd statement because all the other people that day had surely given larger amounts than she did. So how was it possible for her tiny gift of “two cents” to be larger than theirs?

the-widow-mite-hands

Jesus said it was because they gave out of their wealth, but she put in all she had to live on. In God’s mind, the size of the sacrifice is more noteworthy than the size of the gift. In other words, the real value of an offering to God is not in the amount given, but in the cost to the giver. How much does it pinch our pocketbooks? How much does it interfere with our unnecessary splurges?

Others at the temple that day gave what they could spare. This poor widow spared nothing. And Jesus took note. But where would her next meal come from? How could she buy flour for bread, or oil for the household lamps? What about new clothes to replace her tattered garments? What about the broken plow in the field?

The real value of an offering to God is not in the amount given, but in the cost to the giver.

By offering all she had to live on, the widow was entrusting herself to God’s care. She was offering herself completely to the One she had come to the temple to worship in the first place. Indeed, for her, devotion to God and his work took priority over everything else.

Still, was it wise for the widow to empty her account? What happens now? Would God provide for her? Would she be able to eke out a living? Would her fellow Israelites—charged in the Torah with being attentive to her needs as a widow—forget about her?

widow-bible-staff

Not to worry. God has a way of taking care of the generous. On one occasion in my younger days, I emptied out our checking account completely because a man told me he had a need. I was an easy touch and quite unaware that he was a professional extortionist. The man preyed on my commitment to Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount, “Give to the one who asks you” (Matt 5:42a).

So I did. I gave him everything I had.

At the time, I thought it was the right thing to do, but it made me nervous. How was I going to pay our bills? How was I going to feed my family? We had two young children at the time, and I was still in seminary. We had obligations all over the place. (With a few more years under my belt now, I would handle the extortionist a bit differently today.)

money-extortion-hands

Shortly after I gave away all our money, a widow in our church (a widow!) came to me and said, “Tim, the Lord is impressing on my heart that I should pay off your student loan. I don’t know what the balance is, and I don’t really care. God has blessed me with resources at this stage in my life, and I just think he wants me to do this for you.”

I was deeply moved. The woman didn’t know I had just emptied my checking account to help somebody else. She was just walking her own journey of faith and trying to follow Christ.

As Providence would have it, the Lord intersected our paths. Amazingly, the balance on my student loan was just about double the amount in my checking account the day I emptied it. Double! God saw fit to take care of our family in a big way the very week I gave away all our money. We rejoiced and celebrated God’s goodness to us.

Document with title student loan forgiveness.

It’s a great story, but honestly, it’s an old one. It’s been a while since I’ve taken such a radical step of faith with my money like that. Maybe that’s the problem. It’s not really my money, is it?

I need to get back to those days when I acted like everything I have belongs to the Lord, because it does—a time when I was willing to fling myself into God’s arms like a toddler jumping from the top step of the living room stairs, knowing for sure daddy will catch him.

It’s time to be openhanded again and watch what God will do. Problem is, we always assume the more we have, the more we can give. That’s only partially true. The widow in Mark 12 shows us the bigger miracle—the more we share, the more we have.

We always assume the more we have, the more we can give. That’s only partially true. The widow in Mark 12 shows us the bigger miracle—the more we share, the more we have.

In the end, God has always wanted my two cents. He wants yours, too. The amazing thing is, we never have to say a word to give it.

open-hand-give

Eternal Word, only begotten Son of God,
Teach me true generosity.
Teach me to serve you as you deserve.
To give without counting the cost,
To fight heedless of wounds,
To labor without seeking rest,
To sacrifice myself without thought of any reward
Save the knowledge that I have done your will.
Amen.

– St. Ignatius of Loyola

The Permanent Exile of Death (Isaiah 25:6-8)

On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare
a feast of rich food for all peoples,
a banquet of aged wine—
the best of meats and the finest of wines. 

On this mountain he will destroy
the shroud that enfolds all peoples,
the sheet that covers all nations;
he will swallow up death forever.  

The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces;
he will remove the disgrace of his people from all the earth.
The Lord has spoken.  

Isaiah 25:6-8

There’s something pitiable about the person who lives in exile. To be in a faraway place when your heart is back home can be a severe discouragement. We can’t help feeling sorry for people who’ve been evicted or evacuated against their will. To be separated from the comforts of loved ones and familiar surroundings is to be assaulted by loneliness, fear, anxiety, and possibly even despair.

Have you ever felt like an exile? It’s a miserable sensation. The child going away for summer camp, or the teenager going away to college for the first time might have a sense of exile. So might the missionary who heads off to a strange and hostile land after years of being cloistered in a Christian subculture. 

man-alone-gray-fog

To be separated from the comforts of loved ones and familiar surroundings is to be assaulted by loneliness, fear, anxiety, and possibly even despair.

Indeed, exiles come in many forms—the military spouse who gets dragged all over the globe; the chronically ill patient who’s confined to a hospital bed; the success-driven businessperson who gets strapped into a plane seat yet again; the incarcerated man who can do nothing but hang his wrists on the iron bars all day long.

Then there are those who may be physically in their homes, but they, too, feel like exiles: the widow separated from her beloved husband, now living in a quiet house with echoes of poignant memories flooding her soul; the teen athlete who desperately wants to compete but has to stay cloistered in her house while a pandemic runs its course; the child whose parents are emotionally absent and unavailable to provide support and affirmation in those critical, formative years.

All of them can feel like exiles, and all of them desperately want to go “home.”

The people of Isaiah’s day knew that feeling well. Theirs was the plight of the exile. They’re a long way from home, and they have “miles to go before they sleep.” But Isaiah 25 is a song of liberation—an Old Testament Magnificat that anticipates real hope for a bright and glorious future. The hymn breaks into the text unexpected, celebrating the end of the tyranny and shame that have befallen the Jews for so long. God is clearly on the move, having subdued the enemies of Israel and having promised to restore them to a place of peace and prominence once again.

plant-from-tree-stump

With God, even the worst exile is only temporary. Verses 6-8 in particular celebrate the end of darkness and death for the covenant people. The marvelous truth is that Israel as a nation will rise again from the dead.

As is often the case with Old Testament prophecies, the divine Author could see more than the earthly author (cf. 1 Peter 1:10-12). It’s not difficult to capture glimpses of a greater resurrection in this passage—the bodily resurrection that awaits all believers at the end of the age.

empty-tomb-linens

With God, even the worst exile is only temporary. The marvelous truth is that Israel as a nation will rise again from the dead.

In fact, when Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:54 that “death is swallowed up in victory,” he’s citing Isaiah 25:8. When John writes in Revelation 7:17 that “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes,” and again in 21:4 that God “will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more,” he’s surely alluding to the same prophecy. Isaiah’s original vision exceeds all expectations.

purple-mountains-majesty-stream-pine

Indeed, humanity’s exile to this sin-scarred planet of crime, cruelty, injustice, and death will one day come to an end. Like Israel of old, the church may continue to fail God in many ways, but God is still God, and he will keep his promises:

•  He will prepare an eschatological feast for his people (6).

•  He will destroy the corpse’s shroud that enfolds us all (7).

•  He will swallow up death forever (8a).

•  He will wipe away the tears from our faces (8b).

•  And he will remove his people’s disgrace from all the earth (8c).

In other words, death itself will be exiled forever, and the people of God will finally be home. And the authority for such a great hope is that the Lord himself has said it will happen (8d).

great-feast-table-fireplace

Thank you, God, for your power over death and the hope that it brings. As we journey through this life—sometimes feeling like strangers and exiles—encourage our spirits by helping us to remember that you will keep your resurrection promises. In the midst of our many failures, disappointments, disillusionments, and inadequacies, help us to stay focused on the glorious future that awaits the people of God. We’re eager to see you, Lord, and have you dry our tears. Until then, help us to hope. Amen.