Hummingbirds and Hammocks

For me there is something magical about encountering a wild animal. Whether it’s an 8-point buck casually tip-toeing through the forest less than thirty feet away from my temporary perch during a recent Boot Camp, or catching a glimpse of a family of five raccoons strolling through our backyard late at night from the comfort of our couch, or waking up and finding hundreds of starlings blanketing our lawn as they use it for a brief pit stop during a fall murmuration, there is a part of me that leaps to life when it happens – I can feel this mixture of joy, excitement and curiosity begin to rise up. There is a sense of, ‘I don’t want this encounter to end because it feels so true.’  For me, it is also often where God shows up.

Yesterday, it was hummingbirds. Our puppy was, once again, up at the crack of dawn ready to start the day and so I found myself lying in the hammock in our backyard rather than crawling back into bed. The hammock is nestled between our deck and a nearby maple and provides a perfect view of the hummingbird feeder hanging off the corner of the deck. It was early enough in the morning that neither the sounds of the neighborhood nor the wind had woken up, but it was not too early for the hummingbirds. I barely had time to get myself situated in the hammock before a ruby-throated hummingbird darted to the feeder for a refuel. As I watched it hover, briefly land, and then hover again, that familiar sense of wonder returned and God began to connect some dots for me.

During the past few months, Jesus’ words about the vine and the branches in John, Chapter 15, have really stuck with me.

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. 2 He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. 3 You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. 4 Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. 5 “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”   – John 15:1-5

This choice to ‘remain in Him’ has come up for me in Sunday sermons, in favorite podcasts, in books I’m reading, in the wise words of trusted friends, and now… hummingbirds.

A couple weeks ago I watched an episode of Nature which focused on hummingbirds.* Did you know a hummingbird has to feed on nectar every 20 minutes that it is awake?  Every. Twenty. Minutes. For it’s entire life, which can be twelve years or more.  Their little avian fuel tanks are so small and the rate at which they burn that fuel is so high, if they don’t feed almost constantly they will run out of fuel and be unable to fly.

Speaking of flight, what these tiny guys can do in the air is nothing short of a miracle. Their wings beat 50-80 beats per second and, unlike any other bird, they can hover, fly backwards and sideways, and at speeds of more 55 mph. As I watch this little guy from our hammock I think how incredible it would be to fly like that!

To get a sense of how deeply reliant hummingbirds are on nectar, consider this. Experts have estimated the amount of nectar a hummingbird must consume daily to sustain their unmatched flying abilities is the human equivalent of eating 1,300 hamburgers a day and washing it down with 16 gallons of water.

Hummingbirds must stay close to the flower – their source of energy – in order to hover, dart and zip through the air — in order to be what they were created to be and do what they were created to do.

It’s in this moment, in the stillness of the morning as I marvel at this little guy above me, that I realize their flower is a reflection of our Father.

“If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” – John 15:5

Oh, how I long to have an impact for the Kingdom, to know Him more intimately, to bear the kind of fruit where others can’t help but see the truth and glory of God through my life in the same way that I am absolutely captivated by this hummingbird, BUT…. how often do I go more than 20 minutes without drinking from my Father’s well?

Once again, I hear Him say, “Remain in me.”  There is no condemnation, no judgment for my past and present wanderings.  It is a simple but profound invitation.  “You want to fly like the hummingbirds – you want to be what I created you to be.  You can be – even this very day – all you need to do is drink from My well – not weekly, not daily, but minute by minute.” That’s a standing invitation for each of us.

I’m reminded of Jesus’ words,

33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.  – Matthew 6:33-34

I cannot solve tomorrow’s problems today, nor can I change yesterday’s failures, but I can walk with Him today, in every moment.  When I make the choice to do so, I know I am being exactly who he created me to be.  And so I pause in the moment and say, “Jesus, oh, how I want to remain in you. Not just each week, each day or even each hour, but every minute of every day. Thank you for this reminder through your amazing creation!”

Job 12:7,10 says, “But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you … In his hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind.”

Today I’m reminded why my heart loves seeing wild animals – because they remind me of, and occasionally even teach me about, our amazing heavenly Father and how to walk closer with Him every 20 minutes of every day.  The more I lean into Him, the more of my life I give over to Him, the more myself I become…..and the more he can use me, as he uses the hummingbird, to do amazing things that will draw others closer to Him.

* P.S.  – If you want to learn more about what an incredible miracle of creation the hummingbird is check out the full episode, of Nature’s Super Hummingbirds on PBS’ website.

Remembering Relationship

Less often than in years past but more often than I would like to admit, I at times find myself at the end of a day, sometimes even at the end of a few days or (ugh) a week, when it hits me.  I’ve gone the entire day (or longer) without walking with God.   That’s not to say I haven’t spent time reading a daily devotional, reading scripture, listening to a Christian-oriented podcast or reading a book by a Christian author, but rather that I’ve not invited Jesus into the intimate and endless moments of my day, that I’ve not sought or listened for the Father’s direction, that I’ve not been mindful or open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe each of these other spiritual practices are good and helpful and God-ordained.  In fact, I mention them because there aren’t  many days that go by without me spending at least a few minutes on one of them, BUT….. I have to remind myself that devotionals, scripture, podcasts and books are all TOOLS to strengthen my relationship with God.  They are NOT the relationship.

Let me put it this way.  I have three school-age kids who are wonderful and who I love dearly.  With the combined data that my wife and I receive on our smartphones from their teachers and schools and from the papers that come home in their backpacks I can read their stories, review their assignments, view photos of them in class and even occasionally watch videos of their projects.  With these tools I can learn an awful lot about what my kids are good at and what they like to do.  I can begin to understand each of their personalities and how they see themselves and others.  However, none of this actually provides me a relationship with my kids.  For that to happen, I have to spend time with them – talking to them, listening to them, spending time in their presence.

Our relationship with God works the same way.  We can spend all our time learning about God or we can spend our time in relationship with Him.  In His divine goodness He has given each and every one of us on this planet the exact same amount of the primary commodity required in any relationship – time.  1,440 minutes of it every day for each of us.  We then have to decide how we are going to spend it and, more importantly, with whom.

But I know this already so why have another 1,440 minutes (or more) of my life gone by without walking with Him?  This is a question I have to dig into – one that we each have to ask ourselves and one that I would encourage you to talk with God about if you find yourself living moments of life apart from God.

  • Do I believe in my heart of hearts that God is truly good and that He is for me? If not, it’s far easier to devote time to learning about Him rather than spending time with Him.
  • Do I believe that he would ever want to speak to me personally? Do I truly believe that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection was enough to pay for my sins and make me righteous before the Father?  If not, I’ll wallow in shame or self-pity and allow the lies of the enemy to rob me of the relationship that God desires with me.
  • Do I so value the comforts of the World over God’s promises for me that I’ve over-committed my time, resources or personal energy so that I can build a better earthly kingdom to comfort myself and my family? If so, I will be more inclined to medicate my sheer exhaustion with television, sleep, or mindless games on my phone.
  • If I don’t “feel” God’s presence at any moment do I draw the conclusion that He either isn’t here or doesn’t care about me personally? If so, I am more likely to see him as unapproachable and less likely to see His presence in the world.
  • Do I attempt to manage my daily life and control my daily schedule in such a way that I’ve left no room for God to show up?  If so, I either succeed and begin to think I can do it on my own or fail and blame it on God.

When I’ve neglected my relationship with God, sometimes it’s a gentle nudge of the Holy Spirit that draws me back with a jaw-dropping sunset, or the wet kiss of a blanket of fog on the way into work, or the smell of a pine tree or the sound of a stream or the timely words of a song. Sometimes it is one of the spiritual practices I mentioned earlier that draws me back.  Sometimes it’s a comment from one of my kids, or one of the many selfless acts of my wife, or a timely word from a good friend.

If it’s been much longer than a day of not walking with God it’s sometimes less of a nudge of the Holy Spirit and more like a painful shove down the stairs brought on by my own sin.  It might begin with an unintentional, unplanned harsh word spoken out of frustration which quickly escalates into verbal hand grenades – indiscriminate, imprecise lobs of nouns and verbs exacting pain on anyone within range –  and end with regret, tears,  and damaged relationships.  There is a reason Jesus says to abide in Him.  There is a reason he says branches cannot bear fruit unless they are connected to the vine.   It is out of these experiences that I realize even more how desperately I need (and want) to walk with God from moment to moment and minute to minute.

Whether the renewal of my conversation with God begins with joy and gratefulness as I experience one of the countless ways His glory is revealed through His beautiful creation or begins with sadness and repentance from my own actions, I am thankful that our heavenly Father, like the father of the prodigal son, who, in Luke 15:20 saw the son “while he was still a long way off”, never stops looking for us to come home and never gives up on the relationship, whether it has been a day, a week or a lifetime.

 

How BUSY are you?

I don’t know about you but too often I feel like I’m living the words of Professor Hinkle in Frosty the Snowman , “Goodbye everyone … I’ve got to get BUSY… BUSY, BUSY, BUSY!” (it’s after Halloween so we can quote Christmas specials, right?)

Just think about the types of conversations you have on an almost daily basis.  Perhaps with co-workers it’s something like…

“How’s it going?”

“We had a tournament for our oldest’s team all weekend. It is just crazy BUSY right now with school, sports and the kids’ activities.  I can hardly tell if I’m coming or going.”

Or with a neighbor maybe it sounds like…

“How’s it going?”

“Oh man, it is so BUSY at work right now!  Feels like I almost live at the office but, you know how it is – whatever it takes, right?”

How about with your spouse (over text, of course, because there is not time to actually talk in person) …

“How RU?” 

“BUSY!  Are you picking up kids today – or me?  Don’t forget we have to meet with the roof guy at 6:30pm after I drop off kids at practice.  SIGH, could we be more BUSY??”

Whether it’s work, home, kids, parents, neighbors, sports, or even church or volunteer work, in today’s culture it is insanely easy to find yourself so BUSY that by the end of the day Monday you are already strung out, strung up or completely unstrung.  Either because of what happened that day or what you know is supposed to happen later in the week.  Oh, and it’s only Monday.

I’ve begun to wonder if here in America we all suffer from Superhero Sickness.  No, Superhero Sickness is not a rash you develop after binge watching Val Kilmer and Ben Affleck as Batman back-to-back (even though that is enough to make one sick).  Nor does it describe the chronic fatigue from discovering yet another B-list (or even C-list) superhero has made their way to the movie theater or Netflix.

I’ve been a fan of superheroes a long time….and still am.  Ever since I was a kid and rode my bike to the local QuikTrip to buy comic books with money from my paper route, there has been something about a superhero that stirs my soul.  I think, in part, it’s a superhero’s ability to tackle seemingly impossible tasks.  However, even more than turning back time by causing the Earth to spin in reverse on its axis, or running 1,500 MPH without chafing, (both of which seem to me to be impossible tasks), I think what I love most about superheroes is their ability to ‘do it all’ while still maintaining a laser focus on their higher calling.  For example, take the Green Arrow, who hardly could be considered a quintessential superhero.  Oliver Queen is the mayor of Star City, a single dad, has run a billion dollar company and, oh, on top of all that he takes out bad guys and saves the city, if not the world, nearly every night.  Yes, he’s someone who can apparently do it all.

Now, while superheroes can inspire us and often do, there is a risk that our admiration morphs into something less healthy.   This is what I’ll call Superhero Sickness.  When we begin to feel the pressure to be a superhero in our own life.  In other words, when I experience a behavior-impacting sense that myself, my family, or my kids have to do it all, be it all, experience it all; and, that if we don’t then myself, my family or my kids will either fail or fall woefully behind everyone else.

Unfortunately, we live in a culture that has made this “sickness” a way of life – where being BUSY is treated as a badge of honor.  Ask any adult to tell you how they’re doing in one word, and you’ll most likely get “Busy” or some synonym of it.  The level of BUSY-ness in America may be at an all-time high and it shows.  Rates of suicides, addictions, anxiety and depression are all on the rise.  Employees are so BUSY in today’s work environment that several companies, such as Netflix and LinkedIn,  now offer unlimited vacation days for employees.  Not because they they think employees are too BUSY but  because they know  it actually results in people working even more.  We have even have incorporated being BUSY into our internet memes because “Ain’t nobody got time for that.”

This pressure to maintain a BUSY pace of life has even infected many Christians in America.  While each of us are called to serve in our church, if you find that you’re spending more time doing things for Jesus, than you are spending time with Jesus, then you’re probably BUSY and it’s time to reevaluate your church commitments.  I’m reminded of what Jesus said to Martha in Luke 10:38-42.  Martha was doing all of the work preparing the meal and was upset that Mary was sitting there listening to Jesus rather than helping her with the meal.  Feeling righteously indignant Martha went to Jesus and asked Him to tell Mary to help Martha work.  What was Jesus’ reaction?  He told Martha that “Mary has chosen what is better.”  A good reminder that even my choices to be BUSY doing good things can be the wrong choice if it takes away from what is better.

Does that seem like too strong of a statement?  Consider the effect of trying to keep up with the madness of the world, and the resulting BUSYness it causes in us?  Does it bring life to you?  Does it help you develop an intimate, personal relationship with Jesus?  How about the impact on your spouse?  Or your kids, coworkers, neighbors?  What is your impact on others when you are BUSY? I don’t know about you, but it becomes pretty difficult for me to reflect the light of Jesus in a way that draws others close to Him when I allow myself to be so BUSY that I’m exhausted, frustrated, tired, or scared.

If this is the consequence of being BUSY, then perhaps it’s time we start thinking of BUSY as B.U.S.Y –  Being Under Satan’s Yoke.

Consider Jesus’ words found in Matthew 11:28-30,

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Now I know why I love all those superheroes – because all of them ultimately point to the one true superhero….. Jesus, who actually did a seemingly impossible task when he walked out of the tomb and paid the price for my freedom as well as yours.   Take some time out of your BUSY schedule, just as Mary did, and sit at the feet of Jesus and listen to what He has to say to you today.  You will never regret it.

 

 

 

Is Duty a Four Letter Word?

Let me start by saying I love Boy Scouts. I was fortunate to earn the rank of Eagle many, many years ago and more recently, I’ve had the joy (and pain) of serving as a cub scout den leader for an energetic bunch of boys (my son included) for three years and counting. While the Boy Scouts have had ups and downs in the past few years, they, along with the Girl Scouts, are among a handful of organizations, I’m glad to be able to say, who still acknowledge the God-breathed differences between male and female. In addition, unlike so many of the overscheduled and overstructured activities for kids today, scouting actually lets boys be boys. Like I said, I love Boy Scouts. Now for those that may not be familiar, one of the foundations of scouting is the Scout Oath which all scouts must learn and recite. Whether a brand new Tiger Cub in 1st grade or a seasoned Boy Scout in high school, most of your meetings begin by reciting (from memory) the Scout Oath. The Scout Oath begins, as it has since the first BSA Handbook in 1911, “On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty to God…”

The idea of duty, and in particular duty to God, has been interwoven into the fabric of scouting since its origin. Nevertheless, Boy Scouts, remarkably, doesn’t attempt to define what actually constitutes one’s duty to God. Instead, scouts are encouraged to discuss with their parents or faith leader what duty to God means. Thinking back to my own time as a cub and boy scout I don’t recall any specific discussions about my duty to God but 25 years later I still remember the Oath. So what exactly then is one’s duty to God?  Merriam-Webster defines duty as “a moral or legal obligation” and Dictionary.com defines duty as “something that one is expected or required to do...”

So we could say that duty is something that one is expected or required to do out of a moral or legal obligation.  Hmm, that sounds reasonable in the context of assigning household chores to my kids, or a military leader assigning responsibilities for defending one’s country, but can that understanding of duty define our relationship with God?  Having lived a lot of years of the Christian life on the hamster wheel of ‘try hard, try hard, fail’, ‘try hard try hard fail’; I have come to believe that duty alone should not define our relationship with God.

But don’t take my word for it.  Let’s see what God’s word has to say.  Surprisingly, there are not many instances of the word duty in scripture, and all but two of them are found in the Old Testament. The most notable passage in the Old Testament is found in Ecclesiastes when Solomon, nearing the end of that book of the Bible, says, “Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13 NIV)  Whoa.  Strong, resounding words from the wisest (sinful) man who ever lived.  Could I be wrong about duty as defining our relationship with God?  I needed to look further.

In the New Testament, there is really only one reference to duty as an obligation towards God and it’s found in a passage in Chapter 17 of the Book of Luke.  At the beginning of the chapter, Jesus has some harsh words for the disciples about sin and the seriousness of leading others into sin.  The disciples, understanding the weight of Jesus’ words, ask Jesus to, “Increase our faith!”  They had seen the many miracles Jesus performed and were hoping for a bit of (ZAP!) instantaneous spiritual growth.  Instead of describing for them how to increase their faith or doubling down with an additional weighty directive, in verses 7-10 Jesus instead offers the disciples a somewhat confusing parable about a servant and how the servant’s duty is to do what he is told to do.  Many biblical commentators interpret this passage to mean, at least in part, that obedience is our duty.  Sound familiar?

So what do we do with this?  Certainly, we are called to obey Jesus’ commands. Remember what Jesus said in John 14:15, “If you love me, you will obey what I command.” (NIV)  However, it seems that too often the American church allows duty to be a viewed as a reasonable end point for one’s spiritual journey with God.  Actually, perhaps it’s more accurate to say that too often Christians (particularly men) within the American church settle on duty as a reasonable and acceptable foundation for their relationship with God.  Sadly, far too many guys today think duty is the only way they relate to God. An intellectual acknowledgment of the existence of our Creator has wrongfully taken the place of an intimate, personal relationship with one’s heavenly Father. Don’t think so? Take a look at the average worship service on any given Sunday morning and see how engaged the men are in worship. You might ask, “why would someone go to church if there is no personal relationship with Jesus?” One word – duty. Countless men (and women) go to church on Sunday morning simply because they believe it is “something that one is expected or required to do.”

The problem with this, of course, is that duty can only get you so far.  For starters, it can never make you right with God.  Thus, if all you have a is a sense of duty to God, and no relationship, each time you blow it you’re prone to go to shame, self-doubt and self-loathing – “Man, I [insert your sin of choice] again!  I really do suck!  why would God ever want to use me, bless me, love me?”

I suppose it’s not so much that the Boy Scouts or the American church are offering something wrong with regard to duty but rather that they are offering something incomplete.  The Christian life rooted in duty alone can be a horribly burdensome road.  I know, as I was stuck on duty as the foundation of my relationship with God for far too long on my walk with God.  During that time Jesus’ promise in Matthew 11:30 that “my yoke is easy and my burden is light” seemed laughable.  Really? That certainly didn’t seem available to me.

And this is where I bristle at the “duty to God” language in the Scout Oath. While I won’t go so far as to suggest changing an oath that has survived more than one hundred years, I find myself wanting to remind my son and the boys in my den that experiencing God through the lens of duty only is like watching the Lord of the Rings trilogy on a thirteen-inch, standard definition, black and white TV  (“Umm, what’s a black and white TV, Dad??”).   In contrast, experiencing God through the lens of a personal, intimate relationship is like watching the Battle at Helm’s Deep in IMAX 3D with a bottomless tub of buttered popcorn and your best friend in the recliner next to you.

Following Jesus was never meant to be some long, boring slog through life.  Jesus says in John 10:10, “I came that [you] may have life and have it abundantly.” (ESV) The abundant life cannot fit through the keyhole of duty alone.

Perhaps you’re asking, “What do I do if I’m stuck on duty?”  If you’re asking that question, you’ve already taken the first step – acknowledging where you’re at and that it’s not where you want to be.  One of the most beautiful things about our heavenly Father is that he is always, and I mean ALWAYS, willing to meet you wherever you are.  He is the ultimate boy scout – always prepared.

So, how is your relationship with Jesus today? Have you talked to Him lately? Ever? If the idea of having an actual, intimate relationship with the creator of the universe seems laughable to you, start there. Seriously. Tell Him how crazy you think it is that he would be interested in you…….BUT then give Him a chance to respond.  He’s dying for you to reach out to Him……..better put, He died so you could reach out to Him.  And He will respond, for He promises us in Matthew 7:8, “For everyone [yes, everyone means EVERYONE] who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”