Thursday, January 30, 2014


This week I stood at the bedside of an elderly man who is probably in the final hours of his life on earth. He has lived a noble and good life, serving as a pastor to many in RVA.  Over the years he has stood, as I did last night, at the side of many who were in their final moments.  And now he finds himself not as the one who stands but lays.  I was struck by his peaceful acceptance of the role reversal and wondered how I might handle the same one day.

I opened Scripture to Psalm 121 and began to read to him:
I lift up my eyes to the hills-where does my help come from?  My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.  He will not let your foot slip - he who watches over you will not slumber...he will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.
As the words were coming out of my mouth, I suddenly realized a uniqueness to the moment. Typically I read those words as a way to instruct people - but not so in this case.  No instruction necessary.  For him, I was reading the Psalm not as a recommendation but a description of a life lived.  I was standing at the bedside of one, who many decades ago, had resolved that his eyes would look well beyond the hills to divine help.  He would not be lured by the inadequate idols placed on the tops of hills.  His hope would be in the Lord the Maker of heaven and earth.  And he has personally lived and publicly proclaimed that with great faithfulness.    

The hills were home to all the efforts by human hands to create and worship gods. People of antiquity would look to and visit the hills seeking help from tangible, counterfeit expressions of divinity.  In response to this the Psalmist asks a rhetorical question, "Where does my help come from?"And the answer is not found on the hills. The answer is found in the one who made the hills and everything around it.  He is the only one who will not let your foot slip - who will watch over your life - who will not grow tired.

It is with great ease that we create idols.  Our sinful hearts ooze with a desire to replace God with people and things that give us immediate satisfaction.   We feel falsely more secure when we are able to see and touch and hold that which is in front of us.  And so we set our eyes on the hills rather than the One beyond them.

But just when it seems that all has forgotten the Lord, there emerges a voice declaring the silliness and insufficiencies of our human efforts to answer the questions of life. We hear the name of the Lord being lifted up by the faithful.  We taste and see again that the Lord is good.  We sense and are refreshed by the touch of His presence.  And our eyes are lifted again to the Source that is higher than the hills.

As I stood at the beside of one who has been such a voice, I wrestled with a question. "Where is his help now," I wondered.  Is there no comfort from this Psalm for those in death?   I found the answer in the final phrase - the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore. The help that comes from the Lord is for every stage of life.  God's helpful presence is in the beginning, middle, and end. And perhaps it is most pronounced in the end.  For in the final breaths of life we catch our first glimpse of a line.  We see clearly that what we call an end, God calls a beginning.  The line we see is the starting line not the finish line.  And there are no idols waiting for us.  Just God.  

So once again, even in the silence of death, he was proclaiming.  And I heard and have written.  From where does your help come?  Only you can answer that question. I, like my friend, point your eyes to beyond the hills - to the Lord, maker of heaven and earth.  Though He does more behind our backs than in front of us, His presence is always with us.  Embrace the timing and subtlety of His helpful work.  All else is ultimately unhelpful.

For Reverend Walter Myers

Ex nihilo,

R.J. Rhoden

Wednesday, January 22, 2014


In January of 2010 I was invited to Tanzania to do some teaching for a group of African pastors that had gathered for a week of training in the southern region.  My good friend, Scott Hanson, working in Tanzania at the time, was instrumental in securing my invitation and called me to finalize the details of the week.  After some small talk of catching up, he explained to me that I would be speaking 10 times over a period of 5 days (morning and late afternoon each day).  And that each message should be 90 minutes long!  I remember responding to him half serious/half joking, "My goodness, I will have told them everything I know by day 4!"  And his response still lingers in my heart today, "They're hungry."

I decided to prepare a series of teachings out of 2 Timothy - one of the pastoral epistles.  Everything was coming together nicely until about two weeks prior to the trip.  One morning as I was reviewing the teachings my computer crashed, and foolishly, I had not backed up my work.  I lost it all.  To add insult to injury, the next day I was walking across the stage at church, prior to worship, to place the communion elements on the table.  I tripped on a monitor and fell on the broken glass of the chalice. Red liquid flew everywhere and I got a nasty slash on my wrist that needed immediate attention.  It's pretty awkward to come to church and the first thing you hear someone say is, "Pastor Rob was just taken to the ER. He slit his wrist!" I still bear a scar on my right wrist from that accident.  

As if all this was not enough, I found out the next day that a mole removed from my back had come back from the lab as being "not good."  My dermatologist wanted to immediately cut deeper in the spot to ensure that all the tissue around it was clean. This would also require stitches and changing the wound dressings daily.  I could do nothing but nervously laugh.  I was shipping off to Tanzania with an amazing trifecta that included incomplete teachings, a gash in my right wrist, and a surgical wound in the middle of my back that required daily re-dressing (which by the way I could not reach on my own).  Here I come! 

Well, God has a way of helping us to overcome obstacles.  Interestingly, we experience the overcoming not by shrinking back but by forging ahead in His strength and wisdom.  The long flight over provided lots of good time to rebuild my teachings which were still fresh on my mind.  My host, Scott, was a longtime friend who was more than willing to change my wound dressings each day.  And the pastors were impressive, energetic leaders that graciously received teachings that week from this wounded communicator.  

As the week unfolded I got to know their individual circumstances.  Many of them were pastoring in difficult places that included famine, persecution, lack of clean water, humble surroundings, and other challenges.  Some of them had deathly-ill, family members back home while they attended the conference. Suddenly my little obstacles looked laughable in comparison to theirs.  By the end of the week, I was so caught up in their passion and desire for godliness that I had virtually forgotten the circumstances leading up to my trip.  And it culminated during worship the final afternoon.

After my final teaching we decided to conclude the week with a time of worship together.  I have had the opportunity to worship with many Believers in a variety of countries over the years, but this day would leave an impression like no other.  We only sang one phrase.  And we sang it over and over again for about an hour. Though they were singing in swahili I recognized the song and sang it in english:
Open the flood gates of heaven, let it rain, let it rain (repeat for an hour)    
We were singing Isaiah 45:8.  "You heavens above, rain down righteousness; let the clouds shower it down.  Let the earth open wide, let salvation spring up, let righteousness grow with it; I, the Lord, have created it." It was the fastest hour of singing I have ever experienced.  Though we were repeating the same line over and over again, there was such variety of expression and emphasis in the room.  Some were standing - some sitting- some kneeling - some prostrate on the ground.  At times the singing would have a crescendo effect and at other times it would slow.  And than it would build up again. And each word in the phrase seemed to get emphasized in different ways.  Men were weeping and demonstrating before my very eyes that in Him alone we "live, move and have our being." I was so caught up in the moment that I collapsed to a sitting position on the ground as the presence of God overwhelmed me.  And the following thought arrested me for the better part of the hour:  "I wish I was as hungry as them."  

Well guess what?  We can be.  I don't think I was simply experiencing African culture that day though it was very present.  Something more profound was happening.  They were representing a longing and hunger for the things of heaven - a desire that heaven would be poured out upon all humankind in a way that transcends culture, age, gender, race, and all other human barriers.  That day I was with people who were truly hungry, and their longings were exposing what I lacked.  I needed to get hungry.  I needed to desire the things of heaven in a way that well surpassed my delight in the things of this world - a reality not yet fully realized in my life.  I was reminded that day that fullness on the stuff of this world blocks us from the fullness of heaven.  

To this day I cannot hear that song without being immediately transported back to that magical hour in southern Tanzania.  It is now forever with me and I am grateful. And now you are back there with me as well.  Let it rain.

Ex nihilo,

R.J. Rhoden

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Small Beginnings

The prophet Zechariah proclaimed during a season that was not marked by moral or spiritual decline, as some other prophets, but a time of rebuilding.  His mission was to speak into the lives of those gathered to rebuild the temple, and at one point, he does so through a series of seven visions.  The fifth vision, a gold lampstand and two olive trees, is ground zero for some words that have sustained and encouraged hearts for 2,500 years.  Let's hear them once again (Read it aloud):
"'Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,' says the Lord Almighty (v4:6)." And, "Do not despise the day of small beginnings.  The people will rejoice when they see the plumb line in the hand of Zerubbabel (v4:10)."   
The Word of the Lord.

The task of rebuilding the temple was at best - daunting, and at worst - completely unrealistic.  It is difficult enough to rebuild when everyone is cheering along the process but to do so with resistance and limited resources made the effort humanly impossible.  Can you imagine the people returning to their home land and seeing, for the first time, a pile of rubble that used to be their central place of worship? Can you imagine them climbing over the mounds of broken stones and picking up shattered pieces of sacred ornaments scattered in the dust?  Can you imagine their thoughts those first few nights as they lay down to sleep knowing that they must face the brokenness, once again, in the morning?  Rebuilding anything begins with courage and hope - not in oneself but in the One who delights in creating masterpieces out of messes.  And God's best work of rebuilding is done in us not buildings.  

Romantic notions of rebuilding are only felt by those who have never done it.  For those in it or having done so in the past, a rebuilding season challenges one's body, mind, and spirit in an unprecedented way.  It requires us to be in a place of total dependence on God which, initially, is misinterpreted as being weak and vulnerable - feelings we instinctively despise.  But later, we come to discover that our total dependence on God actually brings us strength and accomplishment that is only achievable in Him.  And it is not only for seasons of rebuilding but all our days.  To reach for any other facsimile or cheap imitation than the sustaining power of God's presence is to assure failure.  Rebuilding demands a level of trust and faith that, by very nature of its intensity, changes one forever.  It is permanently defining.

So in the midst of this God speaks to us.  First, He tells us what NOT to rely upon. God says, "Not by might."  The hebrew word is chayil which is used 224 times in Scripture.  It means might in regard to physical strength, ability, wealth, and/or military force.  In addition, God says it is "not by power." Here, the hebrew word is koach - used 125 times.  It is somewhat synonymous with chayil as it points us once again to physical human strength, ability, or even political strength.  So why the repetition?  In essence, God is overly emphasizing something important for us.  He is ensuring that we really get it - that we really hear it - that we really embrace it - and that we really believe it!  All else He will speak is contingent on this starting point.  Miss or downplay it, and all that follows becomes watered-down expressions of faith.

Secondly, God tells us to rely fully rely on His Spirit.  The challenging part of spiritual application is that God continually stretches us to see the "unseeable."  How do we rely on something mystical like "the breath of God?"  Sounds more poetical than practical - more flighty than forceful.  Sounds like a place of denial or excuse for people not smart enough to navigate the challenges of life.  And all this sentiment is complicated by the actions of well-meaning people who have poorly modeled for us spirit-filled living. And so some of us respond with great hesitancy to a life fully immersed and led-by the Spirit of God. And yet it is essential not optional.

We will not in this short blog address all the nuances of a spirit-filled life.  But let me suggest the following.  In the context of rebuilding or remodeling our lives, God's Spirit will bring illumination and discernment.  As we daily renew our minds in Him God's Spirit brings us insight and awareness we never had prior.  We begin to see things differently and comprehend Scripture in a whole new way. Clarity replaces cloudiness.  Focus replaces scattered thinking.  Restfulness replaces restlessness. Patience replaces impetuousness.  Small victories trump big obstacles.  The way of wisdom guides rather than the way of this world.  And people begin to say things like, "You seem different now." This, not hysteria, is the sustaining work of God's Spirit in us.  And we must embrace it.

And finally, God says, "Do not despise the day of small beginnings."  The people in Zechariah's day had to find celebration in each stone they lifted and placed. God rebuilds one stone at a time.  Can He speak and all the stones comply instantly and simultaneously into formation as people merely watch?  Absolutely.  But God's nature is more inclined to process than unilateral intrusion.  He delights more in our outcomes and growth from the process than frivolously displaying His other-world powers. God sees fundamental benefit for us when we learn to rejoice not only at completion but when the right tools are in hand to get the job done.  So He says, "The people will rejoice when they see the plumb line in the hand of Zerubbabel." Can you imagine Zerubbabel, the governor of Judah, standing on a pile of rubble victoriously holding up the plumb line?  What courage and commitment to the process of God! Many a person has missed the completion of a masterpiece because they were too critical of the small beginning and lacked imagination to envision its completion.

So rebuild.

Ex nihilo,

R.J. Rhoden      

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Surprise Me

The prophet Isaiah proclaimed many things to come.  But he also spoke frequently of the way of waiting. The people of his day were feeling what we sometimes feel.  Listen to their statement: "My way is hidden from the Lord; my cause is disregarded by my God (40:27)."  And so Isaiah responds to them, but he does so pastorally not prophetically.  He does not tell them of the future; he speaks of how they are to live now in the midst of their circumstance.  And he does so by directing their hearts to two realities.

First, Isaiah begins with the reality of God not them.  He is initially theological not therapeutic.
God is everlasting, the Creator of the ends of the earth, never tired or weary, and certainly not humanly understood.  God gives strength to those who are weary and power to those who are weak and powerless (40:28-29).  
The way of waiting must have its origin in God.  When we start with God, no matter our circumstance, we secure our Source.  It's like being stranded on a deserted island and finding water.  Nothing else matters until water is secured.  But we live in a self-awareness, self-help society where people begin with themselves not God - our therapy tends to shape theology rather than our theology shaping therapy.  It's no wonder we are doing everything possible to eliminate the reality of waiting.  If all the answers are simply within us than all the answers, at best, are flawed by human sin and limitation.  But when the answers are beyond us, hope, pure and without limitation, floods our hearts.  The Source of our hope is in God not ourselves.  The way of waiting is learned from the Father's heart not our childlike restlessness. Starting with God may not get us quick deliverance but it gets us quickly to the Source of everything we need.

And secondly, Isaiah lifts up to them the actual way of waiting.  He says:
Those who wait on the Lord will renew their strength.  They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint (40:31).  
This is a popular theme for the prophet, using the hebrew word qavah (to wait or eagerly look for) fifteen different times.  So why is it so unpopular with us?  Apart from human impatience, why is waiting such an unacceptable solution for us?  The rest of nature seems to embrace waiting as good and necessary.  What is wrong with us?  I submit that pride and fear keep us leery of waiting.  Pride makes us say and do things that protect our egos.  We want people to be impressed so we act like we have the answers.  But waiting is about not having the answers.  Only the humble can embrace the way of waiting.  And fear makes us avoid the unknown and crushes our ability to trust.  The way of waiting embraces the unknown and requires a trust in God that significantly stretches our faith.  In short, prideful and fearful people will avoid even the appearance of waiting at all costs.   

Well, would it not be great if Isaiah elaborated a little?  A bullet point list of suggested ways to wait would really appeal to us westerners.  We prefer being told what to do rather than discovering it through the working out of our faith.  And a timeframe would delight us beyond recognition!  But God gives neither in advance.  Why?  To be a cruel or vague God?  Not at all.  Consider this.  The "Creator of the ends of the earth" is still creating.  He continues to delight in infinite variety and possibilities- especially in us.  God is not churning out duplicates or repeating the same stories over and over again.  He is crafting uniqueness in each of us.  And this requires waiting - lots of waiting.  The canvas must remain still for the artist to complete the work.

So let's conclude with a prayer.  May this be timely and hopeful as you wait.
God, there is you and everything else.  Nothing is like you.  Forgive me for not seeing your creative work in my life.  Forgive me from being too busy and not still enough to receive from you.  Help me to know the strength and power that comes from You and the insight to see how it is distinct from human effort.  Surprise me with the ability to delight in the wait - to relish in the brief glimpses You show me along the way.  For to see the whole now would overwhelm me.  And as I begin to soar or run without weariness or walk without fatigue may I do so for Your purposes and not my own - Your ways and not the ways of this world.  For You hold the words of eternal life.  Amen.

Ex nihilo,

R.J. Rhoden

Friday, January 3, 2014

A New Path

In the 40th chapter of Isaiah we come across the prophetic declaration commonly associated with John the Baptist.
          "A voice of one calling:  In the desert prepare the way for the Lord; make
            straight in the wilderness the path for our God.  Every valley shall be
            raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall
            become level, the rugged places a plain.  And the glory of the Lord will
            be revealed, and all humankind together will see it.  For the mouth of the
            Lord has spoken(NIV)."
The Word of the Lord.

Why does God not exclusively draw near to us via paths already established?  On many occasions God does. For example, we sense His presence in long standing practices like quiet times, weekly worship, small groups, songs, and other spiritual rituals - all very meaningful.  And than on other occasions, we discover that God wants to prepare a new path for us.

The new path does not rid us of the old ones.  That is a common, wrong assumption. It is not a replacement for long-standing patterns but rather an addition.  It's a means for God to grow us in new ways ensuring the avoidance of complacency and mundaneness.  It's His higher ways that are not our own. God's Spirit is always moving forward.

A new path in could be simple if God would only choose an area of our heart that involves least resistance.  There are plenty of those areas.  But God wants a new path in the wilderness - in the untamed, unrefined, under-regarded, uncultivated, under-developed places that we wrongly assumed were not important to God.  And because of this, work is involved.

We first must address the low points.  Valleys of hurt and despair and disillusionment cannot remain. They are not meant to be a permanent tourist attraction in our lives. They must be raised up. Not forgotten but filled.

Secondly, the big and small obstacles must be removed.  Mountains seem unmovable.  But with only a little bit of faith, Jesus encourages, they can be gone. Most obstacles are reduced one shovel full at a time.  In other words, it takes work and therein lies the frustration.  We lament, "If God wants this obstacle out of the way than why doesn't He damn well remove it himself?'"  God is our strength and energy but He does not force our hands to the shovel.  He co-labors with our wills.

And thirdly, rough and rugged edges need to be smoothed.  Valleys and mountains are easily known but rough edges tend to be in our blind spots.  We often don't know they exist but others close to us do. And so now we must invite others into our preparation of a new path.  There is a kind of strange harmony that surfaces when a trusted companion speaks truth into our lives.  It is one of the few moments in life were humiliation and love become partners.  Like a fine wine paired well with the perfect food.  And so we receive it as a gift.  And the rugged places loose their ruggedness.

Well now the way for a new path is complete.  Now the time has come for all to notice how much we have changed.  For compliments and spiritual fame to emerge as others take note of our accomplishment.  Right?  Not at all.  The establishment of a new path is so that people notice us less and the glory of God more.  Utterly incomprehensible and magnificent at the same time.  The highest indication that a wilderness area of our heart has become a new path is seen in who gets the fame and glory.

          "And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all humankind
          together will see it.  For the mouth of the Lord has spoken."

Ex nihilo,

R.J. Rhoden