Facing three mountains

I’ve been trying hard to figure out what to write about three mountains in front of me.

During the last week, three separate friends have asked me to pray for their challenging situations. Each faces a similar huge trial. I don’t want to describe the situations out of respect for their privacy. But suffice it to say that they are facing something where they feel out of their depth to even know where to start. Solving the problem is far from simple. The path to understanding is murky at best.

And I’m also totally out of my depth in trying to solve their problem. (One thing I’ve learned the hard way is that giving advice on something I’m ignorant about is like entering a dangerous field of land mines. If I were a lawyer, I’d start to think about liability issues if a friend took my advice and it blew up in their face.)

So it’s off to the prayer rug. I’ve been praying for God’s mercy and wisdom for my friends. For peace in the midst of waiting till things change – or understanding to know what to do if things don’t change.

Two of my favorite verses of all time are Philippians 4:6-7. Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.

I’m praying for God’s peace to guard their hearts and their minds. And for that peace to be amazing as it settles in.

I rest in this: Matthew 19:26Jesus looked at them intently and said, “Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But with God everything is possible.”

Paul Merrill writes here every first Friday.

Renewed strength.

raceTen miles into my thirteen-mile race, I was struggling. I ran and then had to walk. And then run. And then walk. I couldn’t wish myself to run faster or further.

I started looking for faces that I knew. I wanted to ask someone to pray for me. Not to encourage me, to pray for me. Because I couldn’t pray. I couldn’t think more clearly than “God, help.”

I tried to remember God’s words to Isaiah that “those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength…they will run and not grow weary.” But it wasn’t working. I figured that God wasn’t talking about about half-marathons. Not exactly.

I’m telling you this story for several reasons.

I’m pretty sure my problem with praying wasn’t a spiritual problem. I had run too fast in the first part of the race. I had only swallowed 4-5 mouthsful of liquid. I had burned a lot of calories and taken in few. I was having physiological issues, not spiritual ones. And sometimes when we have a hard time praying, it’s because we’re exhausted – not because God or we have turned from the other.

But I also know that working that passage from Isaiah into my heart a little further would given more sustenance for that part of my journey. I’m convinced that hoping in the Lord can happen near the end of the distance run, or in the middle of the grocery run, or at the beginning of a coffee run. God is talking to Isaiah about people with a history of depending on themselves who finally learned to depend on God.

The text doesn’t say that there isn’t running or walking or other tests of strength. After all, a grocery run demands concentration and creativity. But I think that we can be renewed with compassion for the family for whom we shop. Sometimes that’s the miracle.

So is crossing the finish line.


The wisdom of listening and doing.

IMG_3010My legs hurt. It’s a natural reaction to the workout they received. They will recover.

They would recover more quickly if I were to follow the counsel of my running medical friend. “Ice is your friend,” he says. “Compression will help,” he says.

And everyone who knows running and muscle soreness agrees. I even agree.

So why do I continue to be forced to walk slowly by the pain in my quads?

I could blame others. “Why don’t you tell me how much ice?” “How long exactly should I hold it on?” “How slowly should I use the foam roller?” “And how do I find the time for all that stuff?”

But I don’t even ask those questions. I know I would get the answers. And then I would have no excuse for not following the counsel that will make me better.

And I need excuses. Because the pain in my legs does not exceed the perceived pain of inconvenience. The desire to take the steps that would make me better is less than the desire to sit passively.

When Jesus got to the end of his Kingdom-living manifesto, he could have said, “Jon, if you listen to those words from Richard about your legs and don’t put them into practice, you are like a man who builds a house literally on a beach instead of laying a foundation that will give the house long-term stability.” But he didn’t say that. Because leg muscles that are sore but not wounded will recover on their own.

Jesus reserved his metaphor for lives that are wounded and cannot heal on their own. They need – I need – to do the inconvenient but healing work of obeying all the things Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount.

Wise living is listening and doing.


Photo: Hope Smith

I wrote about the Sermon on the Mount in my ebook Learning a New Routine. 

Such a great cloud of witnesses.

IMG_3014Preparing to run my first half-marathon, I got a lot of encouragement. People sent me texts. They (you) “liked” my Facebook status. They came to the race.

I could have interpreted the support as pressure that I must do well, increasing my fear of failure.

But my friends aren’t like that. They know I’ve not been an athlete. They know I’ve been training. Some of them know the struggle of running 13 miles. Some of them know the struggle of not walking at all. Some of them know the cost of perseverance.

So when they offer support, they are cheering. They are hoping I do as well as I can. They are hoping to strengthen my resolve and to help me fight my fears.

And I respond looking for ways to run more intentionally. In the middle of the race, when I am struggling, I know that there are people who believe in my work more than I do. I know that when I get to the end, I will find family waiting.

There is an image of running in Hebrews 12:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.

Before the “therefore” is several paragraphs of biography. Some are famous Bible people. Some are not. And some are referred to as “others”. All of them demonstrated faithfulness in the face of opportunity and resistence. Each of them is part of a group of people cheering.

I’ve often felt guilty for not measuring up to this crowd. I now see them as friends, cheering on the way, waiting at the finish.

Every Monday

First published October 8, 2012

It happens every Monday morning.

Every Monday is a restart of our pilgrimage. Every Monday we say, “I want this week to be different. I want to be more committed, more caring, more thoughtful, more loving, more focused, more significant, more successful.”

And then we open our eyes. And shuffle to the mirror. And the words of the psalmist become words in our bathroom: “I call on the Lord in my distress.”

Our resolve and our dreams and our plans run into “lying lips and deceitful tongues.”

Have you heard them yet today? “This food will give you fulfillment, not just fill you up  That candidate is the worst. These three simple steps will make your life easy. You will never amount to anything.”

Some come from a screen. Some come from faces we know. Many come from the mirror. All run the risk of derailing us. And when we clear our head (and drink a little coffee) we warn the lying voices:

May the way your words stab my heart be pierced the way a warrior’s arrows find their target. May the way your lies cause fires in relationships and raise the gossip heat be burned away with coals of a broom tree.

The images seem harsh, but no harsher than lies and deception deserve when we consider the disruption they bring to pilgrimage.

Every Monday we start new, we will be challenged. We live in inertia. When we want to change our eating, we are surrounded by food ads. When we want to claim our team colors, we are surrounded by opposing fans. When we want to wage peace, we are surrounded by heckling hate.

But a pilgrimage always starts with one step. In the right direction. Like the people who sing Psalm 120 on the way to follow God.