Anxiety and the Christian: Part One

“You don’t have anxiety at all do you because you’re a pastor.”

I have heard various iterations of this theme dozens of times since it was determined that I would need a surgical procedure to address the debilitating nerve pain that intermittently shoots from the back of my throat down to the left side of my neck.

Well, as I write this post, that surgery is scheduled to take place in just twelve days.  And guess what?  I am anxious!

I worry that the neurosurgeon might have quarreled with his wife the evening before, not had a good sleep, been cut off in traffic on his way into the hospital…  I worry that he might slip – just a fraction of an inch and my vertebral artery is cut, my dura is punctured, the nerves that control facial expression, articulation, or swallowing get severed…  Will I have a stroke, will I keep my job, will recovery be painful…

And like Jesus, I have on many occasions asked God to take this cup from me.  Even with tears (more times than a male Norwegian might want to publically acknowledge).

As Christians, you and I must aspire to be like Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1; Ephesians 5:1; Philippians 2:5).  And this Christ-likeness involves such things as being hungry, weeping at friend’s funerals, and agonizing over upcoming trials.  To never experience these things in a world that is subject to so much brokenness would mean that we have become something less than human.  As Christians we should remember that it is in heaven that “every tear shall be wiped away.”

And so when people ask if I am nervous, or worried, or anxious I simply tell them, “Yes I am.”  You see, the question for me as a Christian is not whether or not I experience very human reactions to very difficult or troubling developments in my life.  Following Christ makes the most of my humanity, it does not erase it.  The question should always be, “What I am going to do with my emotional reactions to life’s difficulties?”  What will I do with my fear, my worry, my anger, or my anxiety…

Earlier this week one of my parishioners came into my office for our standing lunchtime meeting and with great enthusiasm opened his laptop and gave me a nickel tour of his Logos Bible Software program.  Logos has an amazing collection of Bible study and commentary resources.  He was showing me the Psalms, and at a click of his mouse button he was able to break them up into genre.  Did you know that of the 150 Psalms in the Old Testament collection, the largest single category is that of lament?

God is apparently at least as interested in teaching his people how to experience emotional distress as he is in protecting them from all distressing experiences.   And again and again in the Psalms he gives Christians a model for how to experience the darker moods of the human soul.   The New Testament offers very clear guidance on this as well.  In the next two posts, I will be discussing how to handle anxiety by considering Paul’s letter to the Philippian church.  I hope you will tune in!

And I cannot thank you enough for your prayers for me and my family.  Well over one thousand people have read my request for “Audacious Prayer” and that is in large case because so many of you have shared that post.  Please let me know how I can be praying for you.

Your Pastor,

Bob Bjerkaas

N.B. The picture is cropped from my fellow Norwegian, Edvard Munch’s famed painting, “The Scream.”

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An Audacious Prayer: Psalm 126:4

As those of you who subscribe to this blog – and others who read it regularly may have noticed, I have not been writing much lately.  As a matter of fact, beyond my basic pastoral duties I have really not gotten much done these last two months at all!  In this blog post I want to explain that absence and enlist your aid in my audacious prayer.

For the past three years I have increasingly struggled with an intermittent neck pain that has slowly but steadily increased in intensity and frequency.  Two months ago I finally received a confirmed diagnosis – glossopharyngeal neuralgia.  It is something of a bummer as the surgical fix for it involves inserting a Teflon sling deep inside my head where the vertebral artery is impacting the glossopharyngeal nerve.   And while I have been called a prude before, I am sure all of you would agree that fooling around in the inner recesses of one’s skull indeed constitutes “inappropriate touching.”  The surgery date is being selected by the good folks at Kaiser Permanente as I type, and my surgeon has informed me that recovery will be two to three months, best case scenario.

So, what is the audacious prayer in which I am enlisting your aid?  First, please join me in thanking God that the cause of the pain has been discovered and that there is a solution for it.  About a year ago I began sensing that the pain was more than TMJ or acid reflux…  I had that disquieting sense that something was very wrong with me, but had no idea what that something might be.  Now I know, and the discovery of even undesirable news enables forward progress not otherwise possible.

Secondly, please pray with me that meds I am currently taking for pain would not take such a toll on my body.  The constant nausea, dizziness, and mild headaches make simple tasks in life and work seem very large.  Thus no blog writing…

Lastly, that the surgery is a resounding success and that the pain goes away entirely.  As a diagnostic test, the nerve cluster back behind the back of my mouth was injected with lidocaine a month ago and for seven blissful hours I felt no nerve pain!  And for you chronic pain suffers, you know what I mean.  My prayer is that this constant background pain and intermittent severe pain be completely gone.

In Psalm 126, we find a pilgrim song in which the Israelites who have returned from the Babylonian captivity find themselves in dire straits.  In verses 1-3 we have the people reflecting on how wondrous their past deliverance was – their God had filled their mouths with laughter, their tongues with joy.  But now things are not going well.  We do not know the cause of the singers’ distress, but we know that it caused them to look back on the festive times of their deliverance with longing.  And we know that it moved them to present God with a truly audacious prayer:

“Restore our fortunes, O LORD, as streams in the Negev.”    Psalm 126:4

The Negev was the southern, desert region of Judah.  It was chiefly navigable by the dry stream-beds that offered the easiest travel through the arid and rough landscape.  Until the rains came anyway.  Then these stream-beds or “wadis” would overflow with a raging torrent of life giving water.  The deserts themselves would bloom.  This is no prayer for a gradual, limited improvement – it is not requesting such a modest trickle of grace.  It is a prayer for a flash flood!

My prayer is similarly audacious.  I desire a complete return to unmitigated functionality as a husband, a dad, a pastor, a coach…  And my prayer is for a flood, not a trickle.  This is my prayer for you as well.  Won’t you join me in being audacious before the throne of grace upon which is seated “he who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine.” (Ephesians 3:20).


Your Pastor,

Bob Bjerkaas


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When God Asks the Impossible: Meet the Widow of Zarephath

Have you ever read through a familiar passage of scripture and been surprised to notice something for the first time?  That happened to me recently.  In reading through 1 Kings, I came to the account of the Prophet Elijah’s early ministry, at the time of the great drought during which he hid from King Ahab in the Kerith Ravine and then took up residence with a widow in Zarephath.  Here is the particular passage that I had never truly noticed before: after commanding Elijah to leave the ravine and go to Zarephath, God says, “I have commanded a widow in that place to supply you with food.”  (1 Kings 17:9).

So Elijah, that intrepid man of God, leaves his hideout just south of the Sea of Galilee and walks over a hundred miles to the Phoenician town of Zarephath located on the Mediterranean a long day’s hike north of Sidon.  And he encounters a widow and asks first for water, and then for food.  Her response to the latter request is worth noting in full:

“As surely as the LORD your God lives, I don’t have any bread – only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug.  I am gathering a few sticks to take home and make a meal for myself and my son, that we may eat it – and die.”  (1 Kings 17:12)

Notice – although she had some familiarity with the God of Israel, she is not herself a worshipper of that God.  Her reference to the LORD is like that of King Saul in his last conversation with the Prophet Samuel, in which he refers to God three times as “the LORD your God.”  (1 Samuel 15:15,21, and 30). So, this widow hears from a God with whom she has the slightest acquaintance and is commanded to do something she cannot possibly accomplish.  She only has enough bread for one last meal – not enough to feed a stranger for months!

Have you ever felt that God is asking you to do the impossible?  Elijah’s response to this dear woman may be helpful to you.  Elijah says, “Don’t be afraid.  Go home and do as you have said.  But first make a small cake of bread for me from what you have and then make something for yourself and your son.  For this is what the LORD, the God of Israel says,: ‘The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the LORD gives rain on the land.”  (1 Kings 17:15).

Elijah encourages her not to be afraid and suggests that she follow her plan – but first she should obey the LORD and supply the prophet with a small loaf of bread.  This instruction is followed by a promise that the LORD himself will provide what is needed for her to obey his command.

Too often we don’t want to obey God’s commands until we have a year’s supply of flour and oil in the pantry.  We want to see the miracle first – then we will obey.  And so we miss many, many opportunities to grow in our walks with God and to be effective in serving him and others.  What impossible, or even merely difficult, things is God calling you to do?  Are there areas in your life where you know God has called you to be someone or to do something and you simply don’t have the gifts or resources necessary?    Trust God and obey him as a first order of business.  Perhaps you will discover that he is able to provide you with your daily bread – even in impossible situations.

Your Pastor,

Bob Bjerkaas

N.B. The image above is  Elijah Receiving Bread from the Widow of Zarephath,  oil on canvas painting by Giovanni Lanfranco (1582-1647).   This image is made available by Getty’s Open Content Program.

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Time, Chance, and the Providence of God

The “Final Four” for the 2017 Men’s NCAA Championship have been determined!  For those of you who don’t follow college basketball, this is a big deal.  Sixty-four teams are invited to compete in this annual championship.  They are divided into four regional divisions of sixteen teams each.  The teams that won their divisions this past week make up the “Final Four.”  This year those teams are: Oregon, Gonzaga, North Carolina, and South Carolina.

For sports fans and gamblers alike, this tournament provides an awful lot of excitement.  It might be said that filling out brackets, i.e. predicting who will win the games in this tournament, is a national pastime.  Just one online platform for projecting tournament winners had 18.8 million participants filling out brackets – predicting who the winners and losers would be![1]  What a wonderful sample from which to crowd source a likely outcome for the tournament.

And yet we find that the nation’s experts and amateurs alike are off the mark.  By a lot.  Shockingly, only 657 people (out of 18.8 million) picked Oregon, Gonzaga, North Carolina, and South Carolina to be the 2017 Final Four.  That is 0.003%.  How can so few people have picked the four teams that would win their sixteen team divisions?

Ecclesiastes 9:11 offers some insight on this phenomenon:

“I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.”

In other words, there is something inherently unpredictable about outcomes.  In absolute terms, it is simply not the case that the fastest runner always wins the race; that the strongest fighter wins the battle; that the wise, brilliant, and learned receive food, wealth, and favor.  Under the economy of God’s providential care, there are always circumstances beyond our control that will prove to be the deciding factors in some of our outcomes.   And so we cannot predict our tournament results with anything remotely resembling competency.  Time and chance rule out the possibility of our mere metrics and statistical analyses yielding anything like certainty.

And isn’t that a great thing?  Isn’t it great that your God will use time and chance to grant victories or favor in situations when by all reasonable projections you ought to lose?  Isn’t it wonderful that God cares for you so much that he will humble you by denying you a “slam-dunk” victory when you thought you would surely obtain your objective?

On the third of this month, the NCAA championship will be decided.  I have no idea which of the Final Four teams will either compete in that game or win it.  But I do know this: as a Christian, Every day is game day.  Every day Christian living requires a race to be run as if to win (1 Cor. 9:24) and a battle to be fought with the goal of standing (Eph. 6:13).  The human, physical, secular values of things like speed, strength, and brilliance are of a very qualified importance in determining the outcomes of such races and battles.  God delights in lifting up the humble.  So run however fast God has blessed you with speed.  Struggle with whatever strength he gave you.  Think with what powers of reason you have been blessed, Plan with the wisdom you have received.  And knowing that it is not ultimately your speed, strength or learning that secures your success, put your trust in God who will at times exalt and at times humble you – all in accordance with his glory and your eternal good.

Your Pastor,

Bob Bjerkaas


[1], accessed on 3.28.2017.

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Blessings in Worse Waters

The biblical account of Naaman and his encounter with God has always intrigued me.  Everything that we know about this once great and powerful man can be read in 2 Kings chapter five – take a moment to read it!  He was a successful general, he was a wealthy man, he was trusted by his king, he was loved by his servants, and he was feared by his enemies.  But he contracted leprosy and none of the powers of the East could heal him.  One of his wife’s servant girls was a captive Israelite who suggested that he go and see a man of God in Samaria – the prophet Elisha.  And so Naaman’s life takes an unexpected detour and we find him traveling to a neighboring country in search of a miracle.

Everything about Naaman’s encounter with the prophet Elisha seems designed to humble him.  Elisha does not come out to meet him personally, but sends his servant in his place.  While Naaman thought that he would see a solemn invocation, Elisha merely tells Naaman to bathe – seven times no less!  And although the mighty general was privileged to enjoy the beautiful and majestic rivers of Damascus, Elisha specified which river he must bathe in – the Jordan.

In order to understand how insulting this last instruction must have been to Naaman, it is worth noting that the rivers of Damascus, specifically named by Naaman as the Abana and the Pharpar, were considered to be the most beautiful rivers of the world.  These rivers are the modern day Bavada and el-Anwag and were deemed to be a veritable paradise in antiquity.[1]  In the great general of Aram’s thinking, the Jordan was nothing compared to the rivers of his home.  In the words of a Bible scholar speaking over a century ago, he must have wondered why he was “bidden to wash in that wretched, useless, tortuous stream…”[2]

Whether or not the Jordan compares favorably to Naaman’s local rivers in absolute terms is irrelevant to the story.  The fact is that for Naaman, his home rivers were better – but God explicitly required him to submit himself to what he considered an inferior means of blessing.  And Naaman was humiliated and angry.

It is sometimes the case that God calls us in a manner that necessarily pulls us away from our cultural arrogance.  God sometimes meets us in waters of his choosing, not ours.  Sometimes he does not show himself where we think the circumstances and pageantry would best facilitate our blessedness, but instead acts when and where he can best reveal his glory for and through his people.

Do you believe that God can bring his blessings in water that you deem inferior?  The answer to this question must be an unqualified “YES!”  God does not need clear water and a calm current to change a life – yours or your neighbors!  And he does not need the right mix of trees on the shore line or a sandy bottom.  As wonderful as such things may be, they are completely unnecessary.  And to the extent that we feel they are necessary, they may in fact be impediments to God’s work in our lives.  Sometimes, like Naaman, we need humble servants to pull us up short and ask us “If [God] had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it?  How much more, then, when he tells you, ‘Wash, and be cleansed’!”  (2 Kings 5:13).

Where is God calling you to meet him in circumstances that are less than your desired best?  Perhaps you will experience his power and grace in the wilderness like Moses, in a cave like Elijah, or, like Mary, beside a manger.

Your Pastor,

Bob Bjerkaas

N.B.  The image is the picture of the Jordan River used by the Encyclopedia Britannica:

[1] Volkmar Fritz, 1 & 2 Kings: A Continental Commentary (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), p. 259.

[2] F.W. Farrar, The Second Book of Kings:The Expositor’s Bible (New York: A.C. Armstrong and Son, 1903), p. 52.


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Psalm 1:1 Learning to Say “No”

When I was a boy, my family used to camp several times a year.  There were five of us then: Dad, Mom, Doug, Bob, and Jim (Steve was born when the three of us older brothers were young men – or nearly so).  And we loved those family adventures.  Hiking, fishing, campfires, s’mores, sleeping in the tent…  What amazing memories.

One memory that I recall from each of our trips was the routine we went through upon arriving at our campsite.  Dad would pace off the area where we would set up the tent, and then he would instruct the three of us boys to clear that area of every stick, rock, bottle cap, or pinecone we could find.  Nothing that could either tear the bottom of the tent or discomfit a sleeping family member would escape his notice.  So before we could catch frogs, play catch, go fishing – or do anything fun at all, that tent site would be cleared.  Thoroughly.

It is remarkable how often memories of campsite-clearing come to mind when I reflect on the nature of the Christian’s spiritual life.  And the first verse of the first Psalm is one of many scriptures that summon up images of young Bjerkaas boys crawling around collecting sharp, hard, and otherwise undesirable objects from the ground.  Psalm 1, with its contrast between the man who is blessed and the man who is wicked, begins with a statement of negation – a summary of “things removed.”

“Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers.”

The book of Psalms has been described by many as the song book of God’s people.  It contains what John Calvin called “an anatomy of all the parts of the soul.”  They Psalms address the entire scope of human emotions and present all of God’s attributes.  And it is not without reason that the very first thing this book of inspired songs tells us concerns things that must be removed from our lives: wicked advice, sinful behavior, and mockery.  These things are detrimental to enjoying the blessed life that God offers his people.

In Ephesians 4:22 Christians are told to, “put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires.”  We are to “put off falsehood… stop stealing…let no unwholesome talk come from us…”  Similarly, in Titus 2:11 we are told that “the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men.  It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions…”  The Christian life, it seems, requires as a first order of business the removal of certain “old” ways of existence.  We must be in the business of stone and bottle cap removal in pursuing our Christian life.  Too often we want to experience God’s blessing by simply adding something new, exciting, or good to our lives as we currently find them.  It is as if we want to improve the campsite of our lives by adding a propane stove or stringing up a hammock.  Instead we should make it a regular practice to say ‘No’ to certain things – like mockery, stealing, implementing wicked advice…

Are there areas in your life or tendencies in your heart that need some attention?  Is your spiritual peace hindered by some bit of spiritual debris that you have not quite removed yet?  Is your growth in grace at a standstill?  What is God calling you to say “No” to; to put off and cast away?  Dear Christian, the first song of God’s people calls you to walk away, stand apart, and sit far from all that does not reflect the character of the God who has shown you grace.  Where will you sit?  With whom will you stand?  Whose counsel will you follow?

Your Pastor,

Bob Bjerkaas


NB The image above is cropped from a pastel painting by Andrew Gunderson, noted for his wonderful use of the color blue.

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Love Keeps No Record of Wrongs

The language of the Bible is graphic – sometimes even shocking!  While I may take other opportunities in blog posts to demonstrate the shock value of some scriptures, in this post I want to shed some light on how graphic the language Paul uses to define love would have been to his original audience.

New Testament scholar Anthony Thiselton notes that in the love passage of 1 Corinthians 13, “every verb depicts an action or a stance, usually under the guise of a metaphor or pictorial image.”[1]  So, we should understand that “love does not envy,” paints the picture of someone “boiling” on the inside with discontent that so-and-so has something they themselves ought to have.  Similarly, “love is not easily angered” would have plainly suggested to the original Corinthians that “love doesn’t act as if it is being jabbed with a sharp stick.”  The vocabulary that Paul uses is heavily weighted towards words that bring images to mind.  Of a boiling pot, an iron spike, a bag of hot air… But not this time.

When Paul writes that “love keeps no record of wrongs,” he is not using colorful language so much as he is using technical language.  He has moved from the typical language of caricatures to the more specialized language of finance.  There is still a picture, but it is a bit more developed than the relatively simple image of a cattle prod or the full bladder of a bellows.  Instead we see a banker sitting at his table reviewing all of the debits his client has amassed.  He is making his list and checking it twice.  He will not miss one penny of what his debtor owes him.

This may be a picture of many of us.  But it is not love.  Love does not do this.  People do!  But love does not.  The emphasis in Paul’s word choice falls on the “reckoning,” the focus is on the act of remembering to keep account – on being certain not to lose track of the debt.  And love does not do this.  Love does not make it a point to remember the wrongs committed against it.

Although Jesus does not use the same word, he appeals to the same metaphor when he teaches his disciples to pray.  Many of us have memorized the Lord’s Prayer and recited it thousands of times since childhood: “Forgive us our debts (trespasses) as we forgive our debtors (those who trespass against us).”  The word Jesus uses is rightly translated “debtor” – one who owes something.  And in that prayer we are asking God to keep no record of our wrongs (trespasses), in the same way as we keep no record of the wrongs people commit against us.  In a very real sense, you may as well be asking God to love you in the same way that you love those who have hurt you.  Yikes.

Would you dare to pray that way?  Perhaps we should all take some time and ask God for forgiveness for the wrongs we have so carefully kept a record of – we have kept the real and imagined failures and evils of others on our relational radars – and we have held them under our censure – sometimes for decades.   I have long since lost track of the times I have heard Christians say, “I can never forgive so-and-so for… “

Isn’t it amazing how patient and long-suffering God is with us!  This February, as Valentine’s Day draws near, consider something that you have kept a record of against someone you otherwise love – and perhaps you love them well in many respects.  But in this you have not loved them well.  You have kept that record and held on to that wrong…  Forgive them.  If they have any reason to know that you have kept this against them, ask them for forgiveness for keeping that record.  And may we grow in our ability to truly love others the way that God in Christ has so truly and dearly loved us.

Your Pastor,

Bob Bjerkaas

[1] Antony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, NIGTC (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000), p. 1053.

N.B.  I wish I could give proper credit for this awesome image of Ebenezer Scrooge from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, but alas, no credits could be found.

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Love is Not Easily Angered

Jeremiah Burroughs, a seventeenth-century English pastor and theologian, wrote a book that was intended to heal divisions and promote a gracious unity in a land fractured by civil war, party spirits, and general discord.  He offered his readers a wonderful example of the dangers of a quick temper.  England, at that time, had beacons along the coast that could be set on fire to quickly communicate urgent news across great distances.  In the event that an invading fleet were to appear off that island nation’s coast, word of the danger could spread quickly.  Referencing this early warning system, Burroughs writes: “If one should set the beacons on fire upon the landing of every small boat, what continual combustions and tumults would there be in the land!”[1]

That simple illustration paints a compelling picture.  No doubt anger does have a part to play in the overall character of the Christian.  Jesus became “indignant” when the disciples tried to prevent little children from coming to him. That passage in Mark 10:14 could be more simply translated, “and seeing, Jesus was angry…”  There is such a thing as “righteous anger.”  But I suspect it is more infrequently experienced or encountered than we might imagine.

God’s definition of love does not say that love never gets angry.  But it does say that love is difficult to anger.  It is not in a state of readiness to respond to the least provocation.  Love does not go about with the safety off and the hammer cocked.  Love is difficult to get angry.  And just as the beacons should only be set ablaze when a real and present threat is poised to overwhelm the land, one’s anger should not be stirred unless there is great cause.

Imagine what would become of your dearest friendships and closest relationships if you became angry at trivial or even merely moderate offenses or disappointments.  How often have you become angry by some perceived offense only to realize, too many angry looks and words later, that you misunderstood the supposed offender?  Over time, the sad result of this character flaw would be that your spouse, friend, or co-worker would be so busy walking on eggshells that your relationship will probably never progress to a place where serious issues can be identified and graciously resolved.  Because of your short fuse, every molehill is treated as if it is a mountain.  Every lost dinghy is the Spanish Armada.

Burroughs goes on to say that, “Those who upon every trifle are set on fire by their passions, and who by that set others on fire, exceedingly disturb the peace of those places where they live, those societies to which they belong.  Their hot passions cause the climate where they live to be like the torrid zone, too hot for any to live near them.”[2]

How quickly do you get angry?  Is it difficult for others to provoke you to anger?  Or does anger lay just beneath the surface – waiting for the slightest cause to erupt?  The received wisdom of our culture says to count to ten, take a pill, or punch your pillow.  Perhaps you will find a surer path to the peace God calls you to if you would consider how your quick temper indicates a lack of love for those God has placed in your life.  It may be that by humbly and prayerfully seeking to love them according to God’s definition of love, you will find that it becomes more and more difficult for the imperfections of others to incite you to wrath.

Your Pastor,

Bob Bjerkaas

[1] Jeremiah Burroughs, Irenicum (1653), ed. Don Kistler (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1997), p. 185.

[2] Ibid.

N.B.  The image is a picture of a lit signal beacon in Islington, a district in London otherwise famous for being the district where 12 Grimmauld Place – the home of Sirius Black, was located in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.


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Perseverance or Insanity?

Seven years ago I posed myself a question that I would like to share with you as you begin this new year.  It was sometime in April 2010 that I was watching my youngest two boys (then ages five and seven) playing basketball in our driveway with two of my seven year old’s friends. I was working in my wood shop (which is in the garage) and since the garage door was open  I was able to set my project aside and just watch the kids playing for a while.  This is what I saw: my five year old was taking his turn and could not throw the ball high enough  – even though the basket was lowered to eight feet.  He would shoot the basketball, which would invariably fall short, and say “Let me try again!”  So the other kids would give him the ball and he would try again, the ball would fall short, and he would say, “Let me try again!”  Now reread these last two sentences a dozen times.

At first I was interested to see how long the other kids would let him keep trying.  But then I began wondering how long my young son would want to keep trying.  And then I started wondering, if that was me, how long would I keep trying?  As adults, we all know the definition of insanity: “To do the same thing over and over expecting different results.”  As an adult, watching my child brought this to mind.  I knew that he could try to shoot that ball a hundred times but simply did not have the strength to score.  But I didn’t think he was insane – despite the fact that he was clearly expecting to score any shot now…

And that got me thinking.  Why didn’t I as a parent want to go out and say to my son, “Hey fella, you can’t make a basket right now no matter how hard you try.  It’s crazy for you to keep trying.”  Instead, I was proud of him for his continued effort – I was hoping he would want to try again.

Eventually he did give up without scoring a goal, or even hitting the rim for that matter.  But I knew his efforts were neither crazy nor wasted – despite the fact that his desired accomplishment was never achieved.  He was building character and getting healthy exercise.  And, just as importantly, his friends were learning patience.

Sometimes we as adults try something, do not “at first succeed,” and therefore we assume that we would be crazy to do that again.  And maybe in “sanely” quitting rather than sticking with the old proverbial “try, try again” attitude, we are missing the point.  Just as an earthly father like me knows that there are merits to having eight foot basketball standards in a small child’s driveway, isn’t it possible that our heavenly Father knows that there are merits to calling us to continually confront a challenging obstacle with the same old graces he has outlined over and over in his Word?

I am particularly reminded of Jesus’ words in  Luke 17:4.  He said, “If your brother sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, “I repent,’ forgive him.”  If the world were to watch this kind of persistence from its open garage, surely it would count the forgiving person insane. Yet that repetitious exercise is precisely what we are called to.

How is God calling you to exercise the same graces, over and over and over again – perhaps with nothing to show for it? Or could we be looking for the wrong things to come from our perseverance?  Do we want baskets instead of character; two points instead of muscles?  This year as you commit yourself to a repetitious and often seemingly unrewarded obedience, won’t you join me in praying that “the Lord would direct our hearts into God’s love and the perseverance of Christ.” (2 Thessalonians 3:5).

Your Pastor,

Bob Bjerkaas

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A New Year’s Resolution: Be like a Recovering Alcoholic on the Indian Road

I am not a psychologist or a medical doctor.  I am what the old Puritans would term a “physician of souls.” Vocationally I am a pastor.  Avocationally, I coach lacrosse. In both cases, I am focused on helping people change – specifically, from worse to better.  And in every case that any significant improvement occurs, it is because the athlete or spiritual pilgrim in question has accepted that they have something about them that is not “right.”  Maybe they trail their stick on defense or don’t get their hands up to shoot.  Maybe they are easily angered or have a tendency to gossip.  But until a person identifies something that is wrong, not simply “less than perfect” but actually “wrong,” they will always have a perfectly acceptable status quo to fall back on should their aspirations to change prove difficult and inconvenient.

This is what alcoholics understand – and they recite it like a mantra every time they gather: “My name is John, I am an alcoholic.”  Lasting change is premised upon their self-awareness of the wrongness of their condition.  When they believe they are no longer an alcoholic, bad things tend to happen.  So, if there is something the matter with your life that needs changing this year, identify what is wrong; name it and own it.  Recognize that it has defined you.  Be like a recovering alcoholic.

And walk the Indian Road.  In 1925, Stan Jones wrote a little book on his experiences as a missionary in India that went through twenty-three printings in its first two years.  It proved to be a significant and influential missiological book with an unexpected devotional appeal.  That book was, The Christ of the Indian Road, and in his second chapter he shares a part of a conversation he had with Mahatma Gandhi in which Jones observed that neither Hindu karma or Muslim kismet could bring about change in a person or a nation’s life.  Both of those, he believed were essentially defeatist.  But the cross is different:

“Now the cross never knows defeat, for it is of itself Defeat, and you cannot defeat Defeat.  You cannot break Brokenness.  It starts with defeat and accepts that as a way of life.  But in that very attitude it finds its victory.  It never knows when it is defeated, for it turns every impediment into an instrument, and every difficulty into a door, every cross into a means of redemption.  So I concluded, any people that would put the cross at the center of its thought and life would never know when it is defeated.  It would have a quenchless hope that Easter morning lies just behind every Calvary.”[1]

Own your brokenness and embrace the cross.  If human experience has any usefulness as a guide, you may be quite sure that setbacks and disappointments will be a part of your growth.  For the individual who merely aspires to be better, such challenges are opportunities to fail – to let themselves down.  But for the person who has truly owned their brokenness, every challenge and setback cannot be an opportunity to fail because Brokenness cannot be broken; the alcoholic does not become an alcoholic again.  Instead, such crises become opportunities to either remain the same or to grow – as Jones insists, they are doors to a better place.

Titus chapter three instructs us to stress the truths that we are sinners saved by grace; that we are really, really sinful and that God is outrageously merciful towards us in Christ.  This new year, renew your commitments to owning your brokenness and focusing on the cross of Christ.  And look at your difficulties – your trials and temptations, as opportunities to live a different life because of what God has in Christ done for you.  May your year be full of Easter mornings as you experience the lesser calvaries of life on this side of heaven.  May you find yourself living with a quenchless hope.

Your Pastor,

Bob Bjerkaas

[1] Jones, E. Stanley, The Christ of the Indian Road (New York: The Abingdon Press, 1925), p. 45.

N.B.  The picture was taken by a friend of mine who attended the church I pastored in Vermont.  She took this picture of a busy intersection in Kalimpong, India where she was serving as a medical missionary (she is a veterinarian – think cows and goats not dogs and cats).  This is her description of that intersection: “So these pictures tell a nice story of the contrasts of this place.  The first one is of the main intersection in Kalimpong.  I was sitting with Melissa on the steps of the corner shop waiting for Miku last week.  The clock tower that you can see has a broken clock, and traffic cops stand below it directing the mass of taxis, motorcycles and pedestrians.  You really have to be alert to cross the streets here.”  Note that there is no reason to believe that the man pictured is an alcoholic.

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