My best friend in the world, from ages eight to eighteen (except for three long months), was Mark Maxam. Inseparable companions, we walked to school together, slept over on weekends, jumped off church roofs together, and shared every conceivable secret.

We also wrestled. One day, when I was ten, Mark put me in a scissor-lock that I couldn’t break. So, I bit him. He released me with the roar, “You bit me!” The blood-blush of mortification set my cheeks on fire as I bellowed back, “No I didn’t.”

The thing is: he knew I was lying, and I knew that he knew I was lying, and he knew that I knew that he knew that I was lying. The shame of my scarcely-veiled deceit (not to mention my little nibble) sent me on an emotional, self-protective tail-spin.

I left his house in a huff. I neither called him back nor visited.

Three months later, Mark stopped by my house and silently resumed our friendship. After a few days, I hesitantly asked why he never mentioned my biting. He answered,

“I realized friendship is more important than being right.”

Religion or Relationship?

Last week I read an article by a well-known author who claims that the “religion vs relationship” tension creates a false choice. He emphasized, “And just for the record, the word ‘relationship’ nowhere appears in Scripture—at all.”

But “relationship” appears on every page of Scripture. When God describes his association with humanity, every single metaphor is relational:

  • He is a shepherd and we are his sheep;
  • He is a vine and we are his branches;
  • He is our father, brother, friend, and bridegroom.

The pages of Scripture overflow with the images of a relational God, not mechanical religion. God even redefines “sin” when he declares it “adultery;” that sin is not breaking his rules nearly as much as it is breaking his heart.

Conversation

In one bizarre passage (if I can say that about God’s Word), Jesus vilifies relation-less Bible study. Addressing the Pharisees, Jesus says, “You search the Scriptures carefully because you suppose that in them you have eternal life. Yet they are about me. But you are not willing to come to me to have life” (John 5:39-40).

We can’t read Scripture without seeing a God who longs for relationship.

Every human heart longs for an intimate communication with God. We say there is a God-shaped vacuum in our being; but even after conversion, most believers still experience a vacuum of silence.

The lives of Christians ooze lifelessness to the world because we have adopted the world’s false solutions of busyness over relationship, mission over connection, activity over conversation. With God.

He hears us, yes, but he also wants us to hear him! He made us for a divine dialogue.

Two weeks ago, my friend Mark’s wife of thirty years died of bone cancer. When I asked him what he will miss most about Michelle, he said,

“I’m just going to miss talking with her.”

Sam

Do you have a conversational relationship with God?

Seven years ago I met a mother in anguish because her smart, capable son was living in an abandoned house, playing reggae music on the streets, and panhandling when the busking money fell short. He bathed irregularly and communicated inconsistently.

After he graduated from high school, his mom enrolled him at Stanford while he took the summer off to hitchhike around America. He called rarely, so when it came time to register for fall classes, she picked them for him.

After three weeks, her son dropped out of Stanford and began busking and house-squatting.

Two years later, his mother was desperate. She begged me for ideas. I suggested she call him and ask how he is doing. She plotted, “Oh, so then I can bring him home and re-enroll him in classes.”

“No, just to engage with him on a personal level. No pressure for anything. No agenda.”

“Oh yes, of course, that makes sense, so he’ll come home and enroll himself in school!”

“No, just ask him questions like, ‘What do you like about reggae music?’ and ‘What’s it like to live in an abandoned home?’”

“So I can figure out what’s wrong with him and fix him?”

“No, talk with him just so you can get to know who he is as a person; just for himself.”

She snapped, “What good will that do?”

A Season of Fruitlessness

I feel as though I’m in an unproductive season: the church I serve is struggling, a ministry I help is suffering, and my writing feels like the discordant music of an un-tuned orchestra, playing for an untrained conductor, in an echo-chamber.

Even my golf game (which this summer was the best it’s ever been) recently began to look like a six-year-old playing field hockey with a mop handle. It’s objectively horrible. Witnesses laugh.

In my seeming unfruitfulness of life, I keep asking God questions: “Why this? Why not? Why me? What should I do? What should stop doing? What’s a good plan?”

My prayers are petitioned with uncommonly attentive devotion.

That Mother’s Doppelganger

My bizarre conversation with that distraught mother happened Friday night, April 17th, 2009. It occurred exactly as described. I even wrote it down immediately afterward because this impersonal mother seemed so mercenary with her agenda. And then I forgot about it.

Until yesterday.

Yesterday morning, I overheard someone quote Psalm 1. It promises that the person who delights in God’s word, and meditates on it day and night, will “prosper in all that he does.”

I thought, “Oh, if I just study Scripture more, then people will donate to that good ministry.”

An hour later I read, “Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit” (John 15:5b). I thought, “Oh, I get it; if I seek God for himself, then church attendance will increase.”

And something in my spirit felt God sigh.

Just before dinner, a friend emailed me a quote from Oswald Chambers: “The lasting value of our public service for God is measured by the depth of our intimacy with Him.” I sensed God say, “Just spend time with me, no hidden agenda, nothing mercenary; just to know me better.” And the tiniest of thoughts raced through my head,

“What good will that do?”

Sam

Latest March 22 2016

P. S. I recently wrote a book all about developing a conversational relationship with God. (I may need to read it again myself.) If you want to nurture a relationship with God, may I suggest you buy Hearing God in Conversation.

Eugene Peterson said, “I picked it up out of curiosity, and I couldn’t put it down.”

Gary Wilkerson wrote, “This is a remarkable book that teaches both how to hear God’s voice in Scripture, and then to hear his voice in every avenue of life. It’s filled with humor, insight, practical tips, and sound theology. I can’t recommend a better guide than Hearing God in Conversation.

For the last forty years, my prayer time has started with the Psalms. And for forty years they have alternately given me hope and then pulled that rug of hope from beneath me. They make great promises, but when I pray them with honest self-reflection, the promises fade away.

Look at the hopeful assurances offered:

  • Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear. (Ps. 27:3)
  • The Lord preserves the simple. When I was brought low, he saved me. (Ps. 116:6)
  • The Lord is my Shephard; I shall not want. (Ps. 23:1)

The problem is simple: these promises seem reserved for Saint Francis, not me:

  • The Lord dealt with me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands he rewarded me. (Ps. 18:20)
  • Give ear to my prayer from lips free of deceit! (Ps. 17:1)
  • If I have repaid my friend with evil … let the enemy pursue my soul and overtake it, and let him trample my life to the ground. [YIKES!!] (Ps. 7:4-5)

When I try to pray phrases like, “I have trusted in the Lord without wavering,” the words dribble out of my mouth and splatter on the floor.

Imagine with Me

During the time of Jesus, the Jews prayed every psalm each month. Assuming the prayer life of Jesus was above average, he probably prayed each psalm a thousand times before he began his ministry. There is good evidence that he had each one memorized.

Jesus could pray the following psalms with a confidence that I don’t share:

  • Vindicate me, O Lord, for I have walked in my integrity. (Ps. 26:1)
  • I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart. (Ps. 40:8)

I would like to live my entire life with integrity, but I wouldn’t want God’s vindication of me to depend on it; I aspire to delight in God’s will, but I obsess about my own wishes more often.

Solving the Riddle

Unless we wish to be delusional, self-righteous frauds, it’s hard to pray psalms that broadcast our integrity and clean hands. When I read of promises linked to “lips free from deceit,” and when I’m honest (in that flickering moment of integrity), my shimmering hope sputters.

But God inspired such psalms to nurture hope. How is it found? We find hope by solving their riddle. David sings,

“My mouth shall speak wisdom; the meditation of my heart shall be understanding. I will solve my riddle to the music of the lyre.” (Ps. 49:3-4)

To begin to answer the riddle of the promises: imagine Jesus praying the psalms. For example, envision the hope of Jesus as he recites these verses:

The wicked watches for the righteous and seeks to put him to death. The Lord will not abandon him nor let him be condemned when he is brought to trial. (Ps. 37:32-33)

Immediately we see a problem for Jesus. He prayed those verses hundreds of time. Probably a thousand. Jesus was righteous, the only human ever who could pray that psalm with honesty.

But God did abandon him and God did let him be condemned when he was brought to trial.

So, How Can We Know?

And here is the answer to the riddle. All the promises of God to the righteous (or pure in heart, people of clean hands, and full of integrity), all these promises belong to Jesus. And he gave those blessings to us when he took our curses on himself.

That is how we can know—know without a hint of doubt. God never leaves the righteous in trouble … unless virtuous Jesus took those troubles on himself so he could give us the promises. Now, when we are brought, low we know he will rescue us; God gave Christ’s rescue to us.

Now my mouth can pray those psalms of promise “with lips free of [dribbling, self-] deceit.”

Sam

Psalms by day of year r1

P. S. Years ago I created reading plan for the Psalms. I begin each day reading the psalm(s) for that day. You can download a bookmark version of that plan by clicking on this image.

If you and your friends read the same psalms each day, you have the added bonus of sharing insights, observations, and hearing God, all from reading the same psalms together.

Are we ready for the moments we were created for?

The city of Los Angeles hosted the 1984 Summer Olympics. The world was watching what the entertainment capital of the world would do with the opening and closing ceremonies. During this time, I was running a gymnastics center in the L.A. area. The choreographers came to our gym asking if we had adult male gymnasts who could perform in the opening ceremonies. We had the gymnasts, and because of this, I was given an incredible inside view of the entire production. The ceremonies were designed to be a truly epic event. Everything came of as planned except one thing … except one glorious moment designed and planned in the mind of the producer.

Toward the end of the opening ceremonies, an American bald eagle was to fly around the USC Coliseum over the heads of the audience while the national anthem was playing and then land on the Olympic rings at the end of the song.

The animal trainer for the event faced two significant problems while trying to make this moment happen. The first problem was locating an eagle in captivity. The second was only encountered after the first problem had been solved. The eagle the trainer found had been in captivity for six years because of injuries he had sustained. In order for this moment in the ceremony to be successful, a lot of restoration and training would need to take place before the big day.

After months and months of intense work, the time had come to test the eagle’s training. He was brought to the Coliseum and released to fly. After several test fights the animal trainer encountered an unrecoverable problem.… the eagle died. An investigation found that the eagle had died as a result of vascular collapse and bacterial infection. Consequently, the untold millions who watched the show that summer day never experienced the beauty of that performance.

In a TIME magazine article written about the opening ceremonies, the animal trainer gave an epitaph to the eagle: “The eagle had been fat and coddled for years, and when finally called upon to behave like an eagle, he failed.” Some deep part of me gasped. There was something transcendent about this story, something deeper and more profound than a glorious plan gone awry.

This is the story of many of our lives.

For all of us, there are divine moments we were created for. Moments created for our contribution, moments needing our glory. But often we are not prepared for what will be required of us. We have become fat and coddled, dull and untrained, Alert and Oriented Times Zero.

Erwin McManus wrote in The Barbarian Way,

We are not ready for the great challenges set before us. We have not been prepared to take on any great quest, to battle any great enemy, or even to pursue a great dream for which we have been born. Instead, Christianity has become our Shawshank, and our redemption will only come if we find the courage to escape the prison we have created for ourselves.”

We were not meant to train for such challenges, quests, battles, or dreams alone. God has been with us, helping to develop us; and He is well aware of our injuries, our wounds, and our weaknesses. We have underestimated the power of our lives and our role in the story He has planned for us. But Satan has not underestimated us—that is why he launches such a fierce assault against our hearts. And neither does God—that is why He must train us.

I recently met with a three friends to discuss a Saturday event we were hosting. I thought a previous decision was a spiritual mistake, and I pleaded that we reconsider. Not only did I plead, I urged and pushed, and then I rammed my point home with a metaphorical baseball bat.

My counsel, intensity, and insistence backed them into a corner. And it all backfired.

I’ve always pictured my flesh driving me to obviously unhealthy action: greed, power-lust, sexual immorality, oppression, and that third helping of Moose Tracks ice cream.

But even when my flesh fights for good things, it always corrupts. And then it destroys. My flesh may resist that unneeded extra dessert, but then it gloats, I thank you God that I’m not like all my gluttonous friends.

Beware whenever our flesh agrees with the Spirit. It’s a smiling crocodile.

Our Flesh Blinds Us

When Moses saw a tyrant beating an Israelite, God’s Spirit in him stirred in righteous anger; and then his fleshly wrath took charge and he executed an Egyptian.

When the children of Israel were in the Sinai desert, their spirits and stomachs were empty. They cried, “In Egypt we had buckets of meat, bread, melons, and onions.” But they conveniently forgot that in Egypt there were also beaten, oppressed, and enslaved.

When our natural man takes over—even for a good cause—it degrades our spiritual IQ by eighty-seven points. We know it, we feel it, and we sense it.

When I bludgeoned my friends with “the truth,” even I began to dislike myself and my points.

So How Should We Act?

God doesn’t provide one-size-fits-all solutions. He’s not a paint by number God. If he was, we’d all take those simplistic solutions … and go it alone in our scaly flesh.

(Wait a moment, that’s actually what we do!)

Instead God wants us to remain in a conversational relationship with him so that we are led by the Spirit instead of our reptilian nature. It requires constant connection to God and a heightened vigilance against our natural ways.

When God gives us a spiritual insight about other people, some of us instinctively can’t wait to tell them. Others of us automatically go quiet. Our crocodile nature just grabbed the steering wheel. Maybe us loud-mouths should use that insight to quietly pray with greater clarity, and maybe us church-mice should learn to speak that truth in love.

I don’t know which road we should take today. And neither do you. At least not instinctively. And today’s answer will be different than tomorrow’s. Sometimes Jesus healed the blind with spit and mud, and sometimes he just spoke a word.

I Think I’m Learning

I maintain a website for a local charity. In an email to me last week, someone pointed out a misspelled word. Which was fine. And then he scolded, harangued and censured me:

Don’t you know the importance of first impressions? Little mistakes lead to big ones. Do you understand the damage to our reputation? Indifference creates sloppiness!

I almost didn’t fix that typo. Do I really look like such a dolt? (Murdering Moses would have sided with me on this one. I’m certain.)

But I fixed it. And I didn’t even respond to that email with the words that would have effortlessly flowed from my pen. And I didn’t tell a soul. Not even my wife.

Until now.

And my flesh feels warm and toasty. Why do you ask? Are my teeth showing?

Sam

P. S. To help maintain the needed conversational connection with God, let me suggest reading my book, Hearing God in Conversation.