Sunday, November 30, 2008

Finding God in our more honest moments (church bulletin cover)

It always amazes me that the writers of the Bible -- a book entirely inspired by God -- could be so honest about their struggles. Psalm 94 gives us a glimpse into the heart of one of those writers. The psalmist reveals two parts of his heart: the anxious part and the part that's delighted in God. Here's a man (likely a priest) who writes, "my anxious thoughts multiply within me" as part of the inspired word of God (Psalm 94:19)! So even though God is close enough to that writer for him to participate in writing God's thoughts in this text, he can write that he struggles with anxiety. Though I myself haven't been chosen to write God's inspired Word, I can relate to a guy like this!

But if anxiety is the only part of this man that I can readily relate to, I'm in trouble. There's more to him than that. Psalm 94:19 goes on to say,
"When my anxious thoughts multiply within me, Your consolations delight my soul." This writer also knows how to escape anxiety. He's not stuck. He knows how to receive God's assurances when he's anxious.

I, on the other hand, can get so focused on what's making me anxious that I don't even recognize God's consolations. I get fixated -- my eyes and thoughts riveted on the negative, unable to believe there's a solution, my anxiety growing. The lesson of this psalmist is that you're in good company if you're anxious about something, but not if you can't see God's consolations amidst it. God wants to
"delight my soul" despite my anxieties, and He does that through the "consolations" or assurances found in His Word and through His Spirit within us. In fact, Psalm 94 is full of such words of comfort: "If the Lord had not been my help, my soul would soon have dwelt in the abode of silence. If I should say, 'My foot has slipped,' Your lovingkindness, O Lord, will hold me up" (Psalm 94:17-18).

My part is to take my anxieties to God and to receive the consolations He offers. But to receive such comfort through His Spirit, I need to believe the many promises He offers in His W
ord to help me and "hold me up." And that's the way in which I really want to relate to the writer of Psalm 94!

© 2008 by Ken Peters

Friday, November 21, 2008

Poems from the desert

When I was 23 years old, I lived in the desert of northern Sudan for nearly a year, doing work for Emmanuel International. It was an adventure to be sure. I was young and single, and probably thought I could be another Lawrence of Arabia. But in the midst of the excitement of camel rides, sand storms and practicing my Arabic were the unwieldy challenges of culture shock, team life, unfamiliar illnesses and 120 degree heat. Needless to say, I had my ups and downs over there.

It's probably fair to say that I'm still vulnerable to experiencing ups and downs right here in Winnipeg amidst the adventures of a dove on our window sill and meaningful times of prayer for Fiona, as well as the weighty challenges of disappointing doctor's reports and Fiona's ongoing illness.

But I'm happy to say that I don't fall quite so far as I used to when big challenges follow closely on the heals of encouraging times. I was reminded of that when after receiving some disappointing news from the doctor, as I was encouraging myself in the Lord about it, I recalled two poems that I wrote in Sudan amidst somewhat similar, though different circumstances. I realize that I was quite a different person when I wrote them, but I'll share them here in the order I wrote them.

Bitter Sands
The sand blew by
With ferocious intensity
It filled the sky
It cut the skin

I didn't care
I simply leaned against
A whithered tree
And squinted
At what I didn't know
For I knew not what
Lay beyond that blanket
Of bitter sand
I didn't care
I had wandered
Into a desert
To find peace
And contentment
The peace of the desert
Is the peace of death
And contentment
The contentment of a madman

April 7, 1987

Whispers in the Silence
How clean the desert is! 
How pure in her golden radiance.

Where is man's mark within her?
She has filled her borders
With the power of her impeding presence
That man might find no room
To dwell in his customary comfort
Within her.
Yet she is welcoming to the humble,
Placing before him no obstacles
Save the challenge of her company 
And the company of her challenges.

Enter her company then,
Accept her challenges, 
And leave behind the confusion

And the noise
And the endless distractions
Of the world of man. 
Sit down in her silence,

And hear the whisper of God 
Speaking of peace

And quiet contentment.

April 24, 1987

© 2008 by Ken Peters

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

God is so awesome!

Ever since I first heard Louie Giglio speak about the heavens revealing the otherness of God, I've been fascinated by images of the universe around us. That's why I've placed an "Astronomy Photo of the Day" in the left column of my blog. God is so huge and I am so small, and the more I realize that, the more I'll respond with proper humility before God in the midst of life's challenges. When facing such times, why would I ever argue with a God who is so wondrously great that by the word of His mouth, He filled a universe with billions of galaxies (the Hubble telescope images suggest 125 billion), each one filled with billions of stars, while also loving me enough to choose me before the foundations of this planet were even in place (Ephesians 1:4)? He is God, and there is simply no one like Him (Isaiah 45:5-7)!

I've resorted to using photos of galaxies as wallpaper on my computers just to keep this perspective fresh on my mind. I used to have the Barred Spiral Galaxy on my home computer screen. Take a look...
It's a galaxy about 69 million light years away from earth, and is over 100,000 light years wide, meaning it would take a person 69 million years traveling at 186,000 miles per second (the speed of light) to get to it, and then another mere 100,000 years to travel across it! The sheer scale of such an object is mind-boggling!

At the office, I presently have the Sombrero Galaxy on my computer screen. It's only 28 million light years away, and a mere 60,000 light years wide...
But even though it may only be half the size of the Barred Spiral Galaxy, it's estimated to contain nearly 2,000 globular clusters (spherically shaped collections of up to a million old stars held together by gravity), which is 10 times more than our humble Milky Way contains!

And as I think of how our sun is considered a small to medium sized star, and that there are billions of stars in each of the billions of galaxies, and that God knows exactly how many there are and knows them all by name (Psalm 147:4), I'm humbled at how extremely small I am!

How small? A wonderful image taken by Voyager 1 in 1990 while it was on its way out of our solar system, more than 4 billion miles away from earth, gives a very real sense of our smallness. As Voyager 1 grew increasingly distant, Ground Control on Earth commanded it to turn around and take some pictures of our solar system. From that vast distance, in one of the pictures, Earth can be seen as an infinitesimal point of light visible in a ray of sunlight (enlarged in the image to the right, or click on the image to the left to enlarge it).

As the famous astronomist Carl Sagan later said, "That's here. That's home. That's us." That little dot is where "everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives... every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam."

What's even more amazing about all this is that the same psalm that says that God knows all those billions of billions of stars by name (147:4) also says just one verse earlier that "He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds (Psalm 147:3). What a contrast! A God who is great and awesome enough to create the entire universe condescends to bind up our wounds. Psalm 147 goes on with this contrast: "Great is our Lord, and abundant in power; His understanding is beyond measure. The Lord lifts up the humble; he casts the wicked to the ground" (Psalm 147:5-6). A God of infinite power gently lifting up those who humble themselves before Him. That gives me great reason to want to respond like Job and say, "Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer You? I lay my hand on my mouth" (Job 40:4).

© 2008 by Ken Peters

Sunday, November 16, 2008

A Journey I Don't Expect (church bulletin cover)

It’s become popular to say that the journey is as important as the destination. Maybe somebody should’ve told that to the Israelites in the wilderness. Yet whatever the Israelites might have thought about God’s route for them to the Promised Land, there’s a phrase repeated throughout their story that is worth remembering: “just as the Lord commanded Moses.” Then as the people of Israel neared the end of their long journey, it is summed up as “their journeys by the command of the Lord (Numbers 33:2).

I’d sure like that to be the way my life can be described – a journey by the command of the Lord. I want to be led by God, to walk according to His Word, to follow His initiative. Yet I can see that the Israelites’ “journey by the command of the Lord didn’t always look like what I might expect a journey directed by a wise and loving God to look like. The command of the Lord led His people to places that appeared to have no water and where it looked like He’d abandoned them (Num. 33:14), to places that appeared threatening through a person’s natural eyes (Num. 32:7-8), and to places where warfare was necessary to pass through. In fact, the journey by the command of the Lord began with the feeling that they were trapped between a murderous army and the Red Sea!

The point is that God’s commands do not just lead us into sunshine and meadows. He leads us in ways that teach us dependence, that test us in areas of obedience, that discipline us for unbelief, that strengthen our arms for fighting the good fight, and most importantly, that show us His glory! Will I stay the course and continue to do “just as the Lord commands” me when God’s leading takes me into hard places? I must, because any other route on my journey in this life would be for my own self-interest rather than for God’s glory being displayed as I put my hope and trust in Him.

© 2008 by Ken Peters

Friday, November 7, 2008

Three Simple Steps

Why have I been going on and on about numbers and consumerism and more numbers? C’mon! Lighten up, right? What’s so important about how many cups we use as a society anyway? From all those pictures in my previous posting, one might think that all I’m concerned about is how much ends up in our landfills. Though that might be a valid concern, it’s not something I think about much.

I don’t get stirred up about consumerism for ecological reasons. In fact, my primary concern about consumerism isn’t even about excess. That’s because the Bible isn’t against wealth. In fact, it says that wealth is from God. My primary concern about consumerism is about needs – desperate needs. We as Westerners have so much to share, and can easily do so with little impact on our comfortable Western lifestyles. And if we actually do want to impact our lifestyles, there are people in this world who truly need the help we can offer.

All it takes is a little investigating, a little thought, and then a decision or two.

Investigating is easy. For example, just try doing a Google search on the Democratic Republic of Congo. The UN has recently declared it to be the worst place in the world to be a child. If you really want to know, keep reading and you’ll discover that earlier this year, a UNICEF report declared that the DRC was one of 11 countries where 20% of children die before the age of five. According to other news clips you’ll find, at the beginning of 2008, 45,000 people were dying each month, nearly half of them children, and the fighting has recently intensified!

If you want to know details, the Guardian in the UK reported that The International Rescue Committee said preventable diseases and starvation aggravated by conflict have claimed 5.4 million lives since the beginning of the second Congo war in 1998, equivalent to the population of Denmark. Although the war officially ended in 2002, malaria, diarrhoea, pneumonia and malnutrition continue to claim thousands of lives. The study of 14,000 households across Congo between January 2006 and April 2007 found that nearly half of all the deaths were of children under the age of five, who make up only 19% of the population.” This is why many people don’t take this first step – the truth is too awful to know, the images too hard to see.

But if you get that far, the next thing you’ll want to investigate is who’s offering meaningful help? I tend to check Samaritan’s Purse first, and I generally find that they’re involved in the area I’m concerned about. But another Google search will reveal many agencies helping in any significant crisis.

If you’ve taken the time to investigate a situation like that, you’re already way ahead of your average Western consumer. Way to go! Now step 2 is to simply think a little. Think about whether you want to give once in awhile to needs like these, or on a routine basis. If you only want to do it once in awhile, just think about how much you can spare right now – how much money do you have to give? That’s what most people do. They give occasionally as situations arise. Giving routinely is simply unaffordable to many because their budget is maxed out with too many other monthly bills and payments.

This is where my concerns with consumerism arise, and this is where it’s worth thinking about what we can do without in order to give more generously to desperately needy people. It’s this kind of regular giving that makes a huge difference to those trying to feed the hungry, but it’s also the kind that requires sacrifice from a people who are used to having what they want when they want it.

And that brings us to step 3: a decision or two. What regular expense will I give up so that I can afford to give regularly to those who need my help? Will it be a few of those 410,000 coffee cups that are used every 15 minutes? Or will it be a few of those 2 million plastic beverage bottles that are used every 5 minutes? Once you get used to thinking this way, you may consider giving up things of even more value in your life, like instead of buying as many CDs or DVDs, I’ll give to others instead. Or maybe, spend less on sports or leisure activities. For us, this is a primary reason we gave up cable TV at our house.

The challenge for us all is to match our Western lifestyles with the compassion and convictions of our hearts. What can you do? Investigate. Think a little about your consumer lifestyle. Then, make a decision or two. If we all do that, those three simple steps will make a huge difference in a world of need!

© 2009 by Ken Peters

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Photographing statistics

If you've read my posting below called "The Value of Numbers," or if you've visited the live global stats counter at the bottom of this page, you'll have noticed my appreciation for numbers. Numbers tell us a lot. But not everyone loves numbers, and in fact, as I wrote in "The Value of Numbers," most of us find what we see with our eyes more compelling than what we can count on our fingers.

I also wrote in my previous posting how troubling I find consumerism (which is often most easily measured by numbers). Part of my trouble with consumerism is my own vulnerability to it. But the other reason is because I see a world pursuing it without reservation and I can see where that will inevitably lead. That's why I believe that economics will be as great a factor in the fulfillment of Biblical end-time prophecies as religion or politics. Just bear in mind that the original meaning of "consume" is to destroy.

So when I discovered the following photographs produced by Chris Jordan as a unique visual and statistical perspective of contemporary American culture, I found them compelling in a completely new way than all the scrolling numbers in the statometer at the bottom of my blog! They gave me visual images of the statistics of consumerism -- images that wowed me. They gave me a visual impression of how much money we spend on so much discretional stuff while so much of the world struggles just to provide for their basic needs. Take a look!

As you view the images below, you can click on any image to see it full-sized.

Photo below: 2 million plastic beverage bottles, the number used in the US every 5 minutes

Partial zoom:
Detail at actual size:

Photo below: 426,000 cell phones -- the number of cell phones retired in the US every day

Partial zoom:

Detail at actual size:
Photo below: 106,000 aluminum cans, the number used in the US every thirty seconds

Partial zoom:

Detail at actual size:

Photo below: 410,000 paper cups, the number of disposable hot-beverage paper cups used in the US every fifteen minutes.
Partial zoom:

Detail at actual size:

Photo below: 60,000 plastic bags, the number used in the US every five seconds
Partial zoom:

Detail at actual size:
Photo below: 30,000 reams of office paper, or 15 million sheets, equal to the amount of office paper used in the US every five minutes

Detail at actual size:

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Desires for Other Things

I walked into Wal-Mart the night before Halloween and found that the promotional area just inside their doors was already 90% Christmas stuff. There's no sentimentality in consumerism. Before a holiday is even over (though I'm stooping quite low in order to refer to Halloween as a holiday), the boxes for the next one are being carted out. It's not, "Wasn't that nice?", but rather, "What's next?!"

And though I bristle at the crass consumerism of the retail world, I must admit that I do get distracted by the materialism of the culture in which I live. I want stuff. The world's teetering economies depend on us to do so. And I can't deny that the attraction of stuff has had an impact on my pursuit of God -- diluting my passion for Him. Sure, I've steered clear of most techno-gadgets and I don't even get any channels on my 21" TV. And sure, I've resisted putting new flooring in our house and I'm happy buying used clothes. But I can still end up wanting way more used shirts than any one person needs! And despite my restraints, I still feel drawn to look through the weekly flyers to see if there's more stuff to be had at a reasonable price!

So as I read Mark 4:18-19 recently, I felt a twinge of conviction and wondered at how fruitful my life is for God. Jesus is speaking there of the seed that fell among thorns, and He says, "but the worries of the world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful."

I felt pricked (as if by a thorn) as I read those verses, and as I wondered at the amount of fruit in my life -- in terms of people being saved and in terms of the amount my life shines before an unsaved world the way Jesus said it should in the subsequent verses of 4:21-22. I felt pricked because I know that I'm rich (by most standards of this world), and I have many possessions that can cause me worry if there's trouble with them (car repairs, an appliance on the blink, a basement shifting, a memory-stick lost). And I can certainly feel "desires for other things" that distract me from the things that really matter to God. "Desires for other things enter in and choke the word and it becomes unfruitful." How much more fruitful would I be if my desire to see my neighbour saved was stronger than my desire for books or CDs or good sale prices? What an indictment that such things should appear more important to me!

I realize that the availability of so much stuff in this culture will always have the potential to be as thorns that want to choke the word in my life. But even with the retail world gearing up for the Christmas season, I must not let that happen! May I always want God's will for my life more than any temporary material pleasure. And may Jesus always be the Treasure of my heart, even amongst so much product glitz and excess!

© 2008 by Ken Peters