Paradise is for real…and it’s for you

This morning I read Day 8 in Reading Between the Lines (Scrivener). Yes…I’m more than a few days behind. I had to share it with you. Take a few minutes and let this sink in.

Garden of Eden
Even the phrase “garden of Eden” should make us homesick. “Eden” is taken from the word “delight,” and “garden” when translated to Greek is “paradise.” Here is a paradise of delights–a very lofty beginning for the human race.

According to Genesis 2:8-17, this garden was planted by the Lord God himself. Here we get a different view of God to the one we saw in Genesis 1. There God spoke and it was so. Here “the Lord God” gets his hands dirty.

Who is “The Lord God?”–this one with dirt under his fingernails, planting trees, forming Adam from the dust and giving him the kiss of life? We know that no-one has seen the Father at any time (see John 1:18; Colossians 1:15). This is God the Son, the Father’s eternal Image and Mediator. Here is Christ before He took our flesh.

Many people want to know, “What was Jesus doing before the first Christmas? Well he has always been the One through whom the Father interacts with his world. He is the eternal Word of the Father, or the “Voice of the Lord God” as he’s called in the King James Version of Genesis 3:8. And here we see him as a gardener, preparing a paradise of delights for His favorite creatures.

When we think about the Garden of Eden, we often focus on the one boundary which the Lord sets (the forbidden fruit). But that is to forget the bounty.

This garden is abundant and freely open to humanity. You might think that the garden of the Lord would be the Lord’s own special sanctuary. You might think the Lord would keep it for himself and invite humanity in only occasionally and under the strictest of conditions. But no, humanity not only has access, but roams freely and in authority over God’s own garden.

God says in verse 16: You are free to eat from any tree in the garden.

The Lord fills his garden of delights with abundant fruit. All of it was “pleasing to the eye and good for food” (v. 9). This is profligate goodness. What need is there for beautiful fruit? None. What need is there for tasty fruit? None. Yet this is the way with the Lord. Nothing is necessary. Everything is desired and desirable.

We learn in Genesis 3 that Christ the Lord would come to enjoy this garden and his beloved creatures with an evening walk. This is his nature, to create a space, to make it home, to fill it with beauty and to give it to his friends. He lives to invite humanity into his life of freedom, fullness and fellowship. This is paradise.

But it seems so lost to us now. Here we are stuck in a world full of blood, sweat and tears. And we’re very tempted to think the best has already passed us by. Would we possibly believe in paradise today?

Well the Lord God came to walk with us again in the New Testament. And when he came he was even mistaken as a gardener (John 20:15). But when he came in the Gospels he walked as one of us, and he walked through this world of suffering and pain. His mission took him to the blood, sweat and tears of the cross. As he died, he turned to a dying, despairing, despicable sinner and said:

Today you will be with me in paradise (Luke 23:43).

Paradise is real. It’s even for despairing, despicable sinners in a dying and depraved world. The Lord God enters our plight and promises Paradise. He has come down to the very depths to offer us his incomparable heights. Paradise is not for the ancient myths. It’s for dying sinners in a dying world. Paradise is for you.

Listen to this testimony…and these two songs. You’ll learn why it has three and half million views. What a day that will be!

A Foretaste of Heaven

In 2016 I was privileged, along with members of our staff, to attend a Together For the Gospel Conference in Louisville, KY. More than ten thousand pastors packed the KFC Yum! Center! We listened to great preaching and sang great hymns.

I also own a Yamaha Baby Grand Piano (purchased from craigslist!). I have to get it tuned…at least once a year. As you might suspect, it gets out of tune without trying. So do I, so do you. And these days there are all kinds of posts, news articles, political views, conspiracy theories, vitriol and YouTube videos to completely cause us to get out of tune.

Robert Robinson penned the words of Come Thou Fount in 1758, at the young age of 22, after having come to Jesus from a totally debauched lifestyle. These words are his testimony.

In 2016 we sang a verse I had never sung before, but I wished I had. I’m attaching the audio from 2016 and including the words below. Every great hymn ends up looking up…this one is no exception.

O that Day when freed from sinning,
I shall see thy lovely Face;
Clothed then in blood-washed linen
How I’ll sing thy sovereign grace;
Come, my Lord, no longer tarry,
Take my ransom’d Soul away;
Send thine Angels now to carry
Me to realms of endless Day. 

The news isn’t good. Posts are depressing. Life is unbelievably difficult. Waves are crashing. The ship is reeling and rocking. Which means your heart needs to be tuned now more than ever. Enjoy. It was so good being there in person…a small foretaste of heaven.

Two Roads

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Robert Frost

While Robert Frost (if you read the rest of his poem) sighed over not taking the other road, Solomon, in Proverbs four, says there is a road that you should never travel.

Do not enter the path of the wicked, and do not walk in the way of the evil. Avoid it; do not go on it; turn away from it and pass on.

Proverbs 4:14-15

Notice how many prohibitions Solomon gives. Do not enter. Do not walk. Avoid. Do not go. Turn away. Pass on. It could not be clearer. The old saying, “sow your wild oats” is stupid. It assumes no consequences for your behavior. If you enter into adulthood having never traveled down the road “more traveled” you have not missed anything. Solomon continues.

For they cannot sleep unless they have done wrong; they are robbed of sleep unless they have made someone stumble.

Proverbs 4:16

Wicked people are never satisfied being wicked alone. They must take someone else with them. They know nothing other than to involve an innocent bystander in their wickedness. They gossip in groups. They steal in gangs. They slander in twos and threes. They cheat in tandem.

But the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day. The way of the wicked is like deep darkness, they do not know over what they stumble.

Proverbs 4:18-19

Someone has said, “Show me your friends and I’ll show you your future.” Solomon paints a picture of the future for the wicked and the righteous, the perverse and the penitent, the sinner and the saint. For the child of God, light gives way to light. The days get brighter and brighter. And one day, O what a day that will be, there will be the Son whose radiance is such that the blazing ball of fire we call the sun will not be needed. There will be no night in that city called Heaven. No locks on doors. No security systems. No lying. No cheating. No worrying. No fear. Light. Rest. Glory.

For the wicked, the wanton, the wayward. For the deceptive, destructive, the divisive. Darkness. Deep darkness. They do not know over what they stumble. Devastation. Destruction.

So what must you do. How do you take “the road less traveled” and not sigh about the road more traveled. Proverbs 4:23 gives clear instruction.

Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life. Put away from you crooked speech, and put devious talk far from you.

Proverbs 4:23-24

Guard your heart. Lose “friends” who are not friends at all. Treat your heart like the source of water, the only source for your life. If it gets dirty, everything else will be dirty. Springs provide fresh water for thirsty people. If the spring is dirty, the water supply below it is dirty. All of it. You cannot have a dirty spring and fresh water at the same time. And how do you know if your heart is dirty? Listen to your mouth. Read your texts. Review your Facebook posts. If they are angry, you have an angry heart. If they are bitter, the springs are bitter. If they are sensual, you have a desensitized heart. Jesus said, “Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.”

I would rather travel the road less traveled with a few good (and godly friends), than the highway to nowhere with the throngs.

Be Still

When I woke up early this morning, these words immediately came to my mind, “Be still and know that I am God.” I couldn’t remember the reference so I googled it and discovered all over again the gift of Psalm 46. I would encourage you to be still too. I can assure you that you need this.

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling. Selah (Psalm 46:1-3)

“A very present help” can also be translated “a well-proved help.” I love both translations! God is present now and he has been present before. God did it once and he can do it again. Because of that we will not fear. We will not fear though the earth gives way. Because of where we live, earthquakes are not a major fear. However I know that you could finish that phrase with your own fear. We will not fear though my diagnosis is cancer, though my prognosis is grim, though the Covid numbers rise, though I lose my job, though my grades suffer. We will not fear because God is very present and He is well-proved.

Come, behold the works of the Lord, how he has brought desolations on the earth. He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth, he breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the chariots with fire. (vs. 4-7)

We have a choice today and every day: what will we behold? We can either behold the works of the Lord or we can behold a litany of other things: the ever changing stock market, backbiting politicians, the news, Facebook drama. The list is endless of all that clamors for our attention. For a moment (or two or three) take your gaze off your circumstances and behold his wondrous works. He is a very present, well-proved help.

“Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!” (vs. 10)

This is the only time God speaks in this Psalm! It is as if the sons of Korah are writing and God interrupts! Even they, the writers of the Psalm, need to be still! Another translation renders this verse, “Cease striving and know that I am God.” What God said to me early this morning was this, “Cease striving and know that I am God…and that you are not.” Ouch! Simply put, pray first and solve problems second. Pray more, worry less. Pray more, talk less.

Adrian shared this last night. It might be the best rendition of How Great Thou Art I’ve ever heard. Be still. Listen.

How Salty Tears Become Fresh Springs

How lovely is your dwelling place,O LORD of hosts! My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God. Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O LORD of hosts, my King and my God. Blessed are those who dwell in your house, ever singing your praise! Selah (Psalm 84:1-4, ESV)

Our souls were made for God and only He can satisfy them. Whether we realize it or not, we long for God. We may fill the desire for God with earthly pursuits, good and bad, but at the end of the day we are still left longing for God. The psalmists say that “even the sparrow” finds a home in God’s house. If they can, so can you. When God’s presence becomes your dwelling place you will be blessed. The word blessed at a minimum means happy, to its fullest extent means satisfied. Blessed are those whose strength is in you, in whose hearts are the highway to Zion. (verse 5)

Highways cover the map of every human heart.

Highways to possessions. Highways to relationships. Highways to bank accounts. Highways to addictions. Highways to acceptance. Every human heart has deep roads to oft-traveled destinations. If you want to be satisfied, if you want to be happy, your heart must have an often traveled highway to God. As they go through the valley of Baca, they make it a place of springs. The early rain also covers it with pools. (verse 6) This is the only time in Scripture the valley of Baca is mentioned. Scholars can only guess its location. Its meaning however is clear. Baca means tears. The valley of Baca is the valley of tears.

The highway to the heart of God sometimes travels through the valley of tears.

Sometimes the detour of disappointment brings a flood of tears. At times the difficulties of death, of unexpected divorce, of an unbelievable diagnosis, bring us to our knees. It is in these times that well-worn paths to God become life-giving. Rather than the bitter waters of disappointment, the tears become springs of hope. They are early rains promising a later harvest. If you’re in the Valley of Baca today, don’t lose sight of Zion. Stay on the well-worn highway to the presence of God. Go from “strength to strength.” Don’t be afraid to ask God to “hear your prayer” and “look on your face.” (verse 8) God does not lose sight of you–even though you cannot see Him. Claim the promises and restate the affirmations of the Psalmists:

For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness. For the LORD God is a sun and shield; the LORD bestows favor and honor. No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly. O LORD of hosts, blessed is the one who trusts in you! (Psalm 84:10-12, ESV)

The Starlings are Still Murmuring

Evelyn Langley shared this video with me. I rarely share a video like this, but as I watched it I was captivated…and reminded of this passage. Then when I looked back at Evelyn’s email, she referenced the same Scripture.

The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.

Psalm 19:1-4, ESV

In a world rocked by a pandemic and wrecked by politics, today I will join the silent voice of creation and praise a God who is still on the throne, who sits above all, sees all and knows all. Take four minutes and seventeen seconds to take this in. I’d love to be there in person.

If 2020 Were a Psalm

The Lord reigns; he is robed in majesty;
the Lord is robed; he has put on strength as his belt.
Yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved.
Your throne is established from of old; you are from everlasting.
The floods have lifted up, O Lord,
the floods have lifted up their voice; the floods lift up their roaring.
Mightier than the thunders of many waters, mightier than the waves of the sea,
the Lord on high is mighty!
Your decrees are very trustworthy; holiness befits your house, O Lord forevermore.

Psalm 93

The Lord reigns. I went to thesaurus.com and this is what I found for the word reign. The Lord dominates, governs, holds sway, occupies, administers, bosses, commands, influences, manages, overrules, rules, sits, is in power, is in the driver’s seat, is supreme, heads up, rules the roost, runs the show, superabounds, wears the crown.

The world is established. Again, I went to thesaurus.com. The world (earth) is entrenched, settled, fixed, rooted, secure, set, stable, vested, deep-rooted, permanent, unshakable. The world will not come to an end until the God who reigns, dominates, governs…you get the point…decides it will. China will not end the world. America does not rule the world. Trump or Biden will not determine the the end of the world.

If 2020 were a Psalm, God would still be in charge.

If 2020 were a Psalm, we would grab a life jacket and scream for a lifeline. The floods have lifted up, O Lord, the floods have lifted up their voice; the floods lift up their roaring. (vs. 3) It’s been raining since March. Hurricanes. An earthquake. Violence. Covid. Did I mention an earthquake? In North Carolina! Yes, the floods have lifted up their voice. Israel feared the water more than anything. Incidentally, that’s why in the book of Revelation it states in heaven there will be no more sea. Israel’s fiercest enemies were the Philistines (the word literally means “sea peoples”) who came across the Mediterranean from Greece and wreaked havoc.

The floods have lifted up their waters in your life too. Divorce. Death. Cancer. Job loss. Soured friendships. Unbelievably difficult work situations. You’re struggling to hear God’s voice because the roar of the waves that are slapping you in the face every time you stand up.

If 2020 were a Psalm, we would be honest about how hard life has been…and still is.

If 2020 were a Psalm, we would look up to the Lord who reigns above the roaring waters. Why? Because He is mightier than the thunders of many waters, mightier than the waves of the sea, the Lord on high is mighty! And we would see a God who is undeterred, unmoved, unaltered and unafraid. He is not caught off guard, surprised, bewildered or wondering. Not at all!

His decrees are very trustworthy. Holiness is the doorbell to his house. Now and forever.

How Tears Become Springs

If you’ve ever been to a college campus something quickly becomes quite obvious: there are places where they didn’t build a sidewalk but they should have. Students (and faculty…I’m guilty) have created well-worn paths to favorite destinations. Grass grows everywhere but on these paths. No one has to tell an incoming freshman to walk there–she just does.

Our hearts are the same way. In our hearts are well-worn paths; oft-traveled roads to anticipated destinations. The psalmist knew this.

Blessed are those who strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion.

Psalm 85:5, ESV

Zion, or Jerusalem, was God’s holy city on whose hill stood the temple of God. In that temple was the holy of holies where God’s glory dwelt. The old hymn says, “We’re marching to Zion, beautiful, beautiful Zion.” To go to Zion meant to run to God. To go to Zion meant to offer sacrifices for sins committed, or to offer praise for prayers answered.

Where are the well-worn paths in your life? Where do you travel without even thinking about it? Is Worry your Highway 70 when life unravels? Do you sip your coffee at Control Coffee Shop? Is the Fear Factory your favorite place to shop? Do you frequent the Complaining Confectionary when problems are many and solutions few? Is Guilt Grocery your favorite corner store?

When your oft-traveled destination is God, the unusual occurs.

As they go through the Valley of Baca they make it a place of springs; the early rain also covers it with pools. They go from strength to strength; each one appears before God in Zion.

Psalm 68:6-7, ESV

When your destination is Zion, even the Valley of Baca (the Valley of Tears) becomes a place of springs. We all travel through the Valley of Baca. You cannot avoid tear-filled days and anxious nights. The cancer diagnosis. The car accident. The disappointing child. The bickering coworker. Unmet expectations. More bills than money. More money than happiness. The question is where you will come out on the other side. If in your heart are the highways to Zion, you will go from strength, through tears, to strength. And in between, your tears will become springs. Strangely enough others will drink their fill from your salty tears and never taste the salt.

And you can be sure you have a traveling companion. God goes with you, giving you all you need for all you face.

No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly.

Psalm 84:11

The God Who Rides in the Heavens

Perspective is everything. What I can see from the top of Mount Mitchell is so different from what I can see on Mackey’s Creek. The problem is that if I live on Mackey’s Creek I only get a “Mackey’s Creek” perspective.

God is not like that.

In Psalm 68 King David is staring down enemies. They are fierce…people who hate God. He writes, “As smoke is driven away, so you shall drive them away; as wax melts before fire, so the wicked shall perish before God!” (vs. 2). In verse 3 he describes the righteous as they wait for God to exact justice. At the end of the psalm is the declaration of a God who “rides in the heavens, the ancient heavens; behold he sends out his voice, his mighty voice.” (vs. 33)

Who is this God who rides in the heavens, who sits above it all, who sees from a vantage point no one has? Is God aloof? Does he care? Can he identify with earthlings?

Verse 4 answers that question:

Sing to God, sing praises to his name; lift up a song to him who rides through the deserts; his name is the Lord; exult before him! Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation. God settles the solitary in a home; he leads out the prisoners to prosperity, but the rebellious dwell in a parched land.

Psalm 68:4-6, ESV

The God who rides in the heavens rides through the deserts–your desert. To the orphan he is dad, to the widow He is protector, to the homeless he is a homemaker, to the prisoner he is the just judge who leads you out to prosperity. If God only rode in the heavens, he would be distant, detached, indifferent. If God only rode through the desert he would be dependent, defenseless, finite.

The God who rides in the heavens rides through your desert.

William Cowper, who battled depression and anxiety, wrote eloquently about the God who rides in the heavens and through the desert:

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm

Deep in unsearchable mines
Of never failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs
And works His sovereign will

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take
The clouds you so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense
But trust Him for His grace
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face

His purposes will ripen fast
Unfolding every hour
The bud may have a bitter taste
But sweet will be the flower

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take
The clouds you so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head

Blind unbelief is sure to err
And scan His work in vain
God is His own interpreter
And He will make it plain

So what do you do in the meantime? Let him carry you. Verse 19 is where we live…between the God who rides through the desert and in the heavens.

Blessed be the Lord, who daily bears us up; God is our salvation.

Psalm 68:19

What Dr. Dobbs Taught Me About God

Dr. Dobbs was my freshman biology professor at Wofford. One third of the freshman class at Wofford thought they wanted to be doctors! I was one of them. Day one, Dr. Dobbs walked in, chewing on a cigar, and began lecturing. He expected we could read the syllabus and figure out how the course worked so he didn’t waste time explaining it. He began lecturing. He lectured for fifty minutes and dismissed class. Day two was the same. Every Monday, Wednesday he lectured. Every Friday, he quizzed us and then lectured. Three times a semester we had a major test. We had one final exam.

Then there was lab. We dissected a pig–all semester. Our final exam was pins stuck in all kinds of parts of that pig with numbers. Our task: identify each part. When we walked into the lab for the final, Dr. Dobbs was standing down front, chewing on his cigar. At our stations was a piece of paper with around a hundred blanks lines. We began at one station, and when the time was up he would say, “Next” and on to the next. I was never so glad to finish an exam!

Dr. Dobbs was a great professor because he gave great lectures and great tests. And he convinced me (and about 100 other students) that we were not supposed to be doctors. Wofford had a 98% acceptance rate into medical school…because of Dr. Dobbs. He readied future-doctors and weeded out would-be doctors.

In Psalm 66, the Psalmist writes, “For you, O God, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried. You brought us into the net; you laid a crushing burden on our backs; you let men ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water; yet you have brought us out to a place of abundance.” (10-12)

God is like every good professor, or maybe we should say that every good professor is like God. Every good professor tests his students after he has taught them. Every good professor teaches well and tests well. God does too. Every good silversmith heats the silver to rid it of impurities.

It is doubtful whether God can bless a man greatly until he has hurt him deeply. God actually rises up storms of conflict in relationships at times in order to accomplish that deeper work in our character. We cannot love our enemies in our own strength. This is graduate-level grace. Are you willing to enter this school? Are you willing to take the test? If you pass, you can expect to be elevated to a new level in the Kingdom. For He brings us through these tests as preparation for greater use in the Kingdom. You must pass the test first.”

A.W. Tozer

I finished Dr. Dobbs’ class with a hard-earned “B”…and I wasn’t used to making B’s. I clearly did not become a doctor, but I learned something. I learned how to listen in class, study outside of class, and I learned that the best professors teach well and test well.

God is the ultimate professor. And he’s my Father.

He’s testing me. And you too. The Psalmist passed his test. We can too.

Come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will tell what he has done for my soul. I cried to him with my mouth, and high praise was on my tongue. If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened. But truly God has listened; he has attended to the voice of my prayer. Blessed be God, because he has not rejected my prayer or removed his steadfast love from me!

Psalmist, 66:16-20