Wednesday, May 25, 2016


                Since I was in high school, I have liked the idea of backpacking. We did some camping as a family, and I thought it would be great to be able to take that to the next level. I liked the idea of getting away from the beaten path and getting out into the wilderness. I still have the Sierra Club book that I bought back then. But, for the most part, my experience was all theoretical.

                After I was accepted to Wheaton, I was given the opportunity to go on a program called Vanguards. It was a true wilderness experience set in the back country of Wisconsin and the UP. Wheaton owns Honey Rock camp, which was the launching pad for this three week adventure. I went into that experience all excited about finally getting to do some real backpacking. Little did I know how much it would put me to the test. The first day of our experience took place at camp, where they gave us some basic training in canoeing and in using the equipment we were issued. Then it was on the trail for the better part of three weeks.

                The first week was spent canoeing north. At the end of that week we relinquished our canoes, shouldered our backpacks and headed into the wilderness. We were given a compass, a topographical map, and a daily destination. The rules were that we had to avoid populated areas and we could not use any established roads. Each day, two of our team were selected to determine the course for the next day and to lead the team. Our official leaders were there to keep us out of trouble, but they made us lead. At the end of each week, we had to find our supply depot, which had our food and other necessities for the next week. At the end of the three weeks we arrived on the shore of Lake Superior in the UP of Michigan. After a three day solo experience on the lake shore, we were picked up by the camp bus and transported back to Honey Rock for a day of debriefing. Before that experience was over, I was pushed to my limit, only to discover that I could go farther than I thought.

                 I didn’t have any opportunity to continue my backpacking adventure until I moved to Minnesota. I discovered that Minnesota is a prime place to get in touch with nature, up close and personal. On our many trips to the North Shore, I discovered the Superior Hiking Trail. When my boys were in high school, we took a couple of long weekend backpacking trips. Each trip was a learning experience. Each trip offered new challenges.

                Two years ago, I led the first Bethel Men’s backpacking trip on the Superior Hiking Trail. That was followed by a second trip last year. I am trying to find a time when I can lead one this year. With Elizabeth graduating from college in May and getting married in August, my time table is a little cramped.

                As I was thinking about what to share with you today, I noticed this picture in my office. Partners in the voyage. It reminded me that the spiritual life is a journey, not unlike a backpacking trip. We begin the journey with great enthusiasm, but little knowledge of what lies ahead of us. We soon discover that the journey is harder than we thought it would be. There are times of great excitement, interspersed with unanticipated challenges. We quickly discover that this is a journey best shared with others. I could go backpacking on my own, but it would not be as much fun, and it would be more dangerous. I can try to live the Christian life on my own, but it is not as rewarding and it is far more dangerous.

                The Bible says much about being partners on this life-long journey. One of the most well-known passages is Eccl. 4:9-12.
    Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work:
    If one falls down, his friend can help him up.
    But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up!
    Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone?
   Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves.
    A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.

                There are some important spiritual truths in this passage for all who embark on the adventure of this spiritual journey.

                We make better progress in life when we work together. When you are backpacking with others, you push each other to give your best effort. It is not really a competition. It is more a drawing out of full effort; not wanting to let the others down. Solomon put it this way in Proverbs 27:17. As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.
                When we work together we accomplish more than if we try to do it on our own. Paul refers to this as being a part of the Body of Christ. He reminds us that God’s design for the Christian life is that we would take this journey together.
1 Cor. 12:12 The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ.
1 Cor. 12:27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.
                Later Paul wrote to the Ephesians about the importance of working together. Ephes. 4:16
    From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

                There are times when we all stumble and fall. We need a companion to help us get back on our feet. There are two incidents from my wilderness experience that illustrate this important truth. There were ten of us on my Vanguard team, plus two upper class leaders. One of our team members was a small guy, who I’ll call Eric, because I can’t remember his name. Eric did fine while we were canoeing, but once we had to carry our heavy backpacks, things got a little more difficult for him. Sometime during our second week, Eric pinched a nerve in his shoulder, which made his left arm go completely numb. Our leaders took Eric to a doctor who diagnosed the problem. He said Eric could continue on the trip, but he could not carry any weight. Each of us took some of Eric’s equipment so that he could continue with us.
                Because of Eric’s arm, he became the defacto head of the line. Although he was not the daily leader every day, he would be the one out front of the group. One day we hiked across a marshy area with Eric out front. Another team member, call him Bruce, was following right behind Eric. Suddenly Bruce dropped straight down into the ground. At that point we discovered that we were hiking on a floating bog. The extra weight of Bruce’s backpack had caused him to break through the top layer. He was suspended there; his backpack saving him from going all the way through. Together we hauled him out of the hole.
                On this spiritual journey there will be times when one of us will need extra help. There will also be times when one of us will step into a spiritual hole, and need someone to pull him out.
Galatians 6:1-2 Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.

                Having a fellow traveler helps us to overcome the inevitable discouragement that we will face along the way. On last year’s Men’s backpacking trip, my two companions were not in as good of shape as they thought they were. The initial excitement of hitting the trail soon faded, and they began to feel the weight of their backpacks. It would have been easy for them to give up and cut the trip short. But we encouraged one another to keep going.
                There are many times during our spiritual journey when the weight of life will wear us down. We can become discouraged and want to give up. It is at those times that we need others to come along side of us and encourage us to keep going. I have a couple of friends that I can turn to when discouragement begins to creep in. They don’t have all of the answers, but they can lift my spirits and give me the courage to keep going. Have you noticed that discouragement and encouragement have the same core. To discourage is to take away courage. To encourage is to give courage.
                One of the greatest gifts we can give to one another is the gift of encouragement. We all need it, but we don’t all get it as regularly as we would like. During these unsettled times, we need to be intentional encouragers.
1 Thes. 5:11 Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.

Hebrews 10:25 Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another--and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

                A lone traveler is vulnerable. But those traveling together can offer a greater sense of security and protection. We are often braver when we are with others, then when we are on our own.  
                One of my fears whenever I am backpacking on the North Shore is that I will run into a bear. Having other people with me lessens some of my fear. I figure if there is more than one of us, we can scare the bear away more easily.
                We have an enemy who is far more menacing and far more cunning than a bear. The Bible describes Satan as a roaring lion. He is always looking for the vulnerable, the unprotected, to attack. When we band together, we are better equipped to fend off Satan’s attacks.
1 Peter 5:8-9  Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings.

                On this journey, we can follow Christ’s lead. Ecclesiastes says that a cord of three strands in not easily broken. The glue that holds us together is not our determination, or our skills and talents. It is our faith in Christ. Our strength comes from Him. He has not only set the course for us to follow, he has traveled the course before us.
                I mentioned that we had two upper class leaders on our Vanguard team. They were there to watch over us and keep us from making any real bad mistakes. They were able to guide us on our journey because earlier in the summer they had taken the same trip. They knew the path we would be taking, as well as how to get us out of the wilderness if an emergency arose.
                The Bible assures us that Jesus has already blazed the trail before us. Hebrews 4:15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are--yet was without sin.
                We can trust Jesus to lead the way, and to give us the strength we need for the journey. Hebrews 12:1-3 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. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

                I hope to be able to do some more backpacking in the future, if the Lord allows. But every day, I am on a journey of far greater significance. It is a journey of faith that will last until I stand in Christ’s presence in eternity. We are all on this journey. Christ wants us to travel together; partners in the journey.      

Tuesday, May 24, 2016


                I have a major flaw in my character that I share with many other people. That flaw is an inordinate need to be right. This flaw manifests itself in a number of ways. It comes out in the need to correct others. I was in an airport once and I overheard two people talking. One of the people gave the other some inaccurate information about where to find something in the airport. I had an overwhelming urge to butt in and correct him. It also come out when I find myself in a conversation and start to defend my position, whatever it is or how important or unimportant it may be. Once when I was young I was in a conversation with my father and some other adults. The topic of conversation had something to do with Moses and the golden calf. Wanting to impress these adults, I inserted the information that Moses had the golden calf ground into power, mixed with water, and made the people drink it. The adults all laughed and shrugged off my comment. For the longest time, I had the desire to prove to those adults that I was right.

                In the Bible, the people who suffered the most from this malady were the Pharisees. They were the spiritual elite of their day. They were not “professional clergy”, but lay people who avidly studied the scriptures, in the most minute detail. They would spend hours arguing over fine points in the Law. Things such as, how much weight can a person carry on the Sabbath without doing work. The most important thing for the Pharisees was that they were right. They had the corner on the truth, and they were not shy to let others know it.

                When the Pharisees encountered Jesus, the inevitable sparks began to fly. Jesus often challenged their understanding of the scriptures. This made them very defensive and so they argued more aggressively. We can see this conflict clearly in the Sermon on the Mount, as recorded in Matthew 5-7. In Chapter 5, six times Jesus says, you have heard it said, but I say. Six times, Jesus openly challenged the teaching of the Scribes and Pharisees. Needless to say, this did not win Jesus many friends among the brotherhood of Pharisees.

                The reaction of the Pharisees highlights two corollaries to my flaw of always needing to be right. Maybe they are actually the underlying cause of my need to be right. They are the need to prove myself and the need to have other people’s approval. Much of my life I have tried to prove myself to God and to others. I kept all the rules, so that those I respected would approve of me. I was compliant, in order to win the acceptance and approval of others. My obedience was often not fueled by any noble quality in my character, but by my need to be accepted and affirmed.  In a way, I was trying to prove to God that I was worthy of His love and acceptance.

                I would love to be able to say that all that is behind me, but that is not true. I still struggle with these things, but I have also matured spiritually. I have gained a different perspective that has allowed me, for the most part, to let go of these deep seated needs. Here are a few things I have learned.

                I have learned that I can never be good enough to earn God’s favor, but that Jesus has taken care of that for me. I cannot become righteous by my own effort. My righteousness comes from Christ. Paul makes this clear in Romans 3:21-24. But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. Knowing this can free me from the insatiable need to prove myself.

                I have learned that, in Christ, I have been completely accepted by God. I am loved with an everlasting, overwhelming love that is not dependent upon my performance. There are many passages that emphasize this truth. Here are just a couple examples.

                But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. [10] Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. 1 Peter 2:9-10

                How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure. 1 John 3:1-3

                 I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge--that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Ephesians 3:16-19

                I have learned that I don’t have to prove myself to God. My relationship with God is not based on my efforts, but on God’s grace and mercy, which He has freely given to me. I can trust in His promises and be secure in my eternal hope.

                For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-- not by works, so that no one can boast. Ephesians 2:8-9

                I still struggle with the desire to be right, to be in control, and to seek approval. But these things has loosened their grip on me. These days I am less dogmatic and more compassionate. I am more willing to admit that I don’t know or that I am wrong. And less and less do I feel the need to prove myself. Each day I am becoming more secure in my walk with Christ and my dependence upon the work of the Holy Spirit in my life.  Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. Philippians 3:12-14


Tuesday, May 17, 2016


                Coming back to the routine of life after a time of vacation has always been a struggle for me. It takes me time to get reoriented and refocused. The glow of time away quickly fades and is replaced by the realities of daily life and ministry. Usually when I return from vacation, I want to have a day or two to get my bearings again. That rarely happens. Instead, there is a backlog of things waiting for me, each demanding my immediate attentions.

                I wonder if that is how Jesus felt. He would often pull away for times of prayer and reflection by himself. These were important times for him. But these times were most often interrupted by the constant demands of those around him. We see one of those experiences in Mark 1:35-37. Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. Simon and his companions went to look for him, and when they found him, they exclaimed: "Everyone is looking for you!"

                The classic example of this has to be the Mount of Transfiguration. This significant event is recorded for us in Matthew 17, Mark 9, and Luke 9. Jesus took Peter, James, and John up on a mountain to pray. While they were there, Jesus’ glory was revealed. He was joined by Moses and Elijah. It was such an overwhelming experience that the disciples didn’t want it to end. It did end, and Jesus led the three back down the mountain, still reveling in what they had experienced. Now here is the fly in the ointment. As soon as they got back, they were confronted with a problem that had to be solved. A man had brought his demon possessed son to Jesus’ disciples to have him healed, but they could not get the job done. When they saw Jesus coming, everyone ran to him, expecting him to make things right.

                I can hear the exasperation in Jesus’ voice as he replied to the urgent entreaties accosting him.    "O unbelieving and perverse generation," Jesus replied, "how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy here to me." Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of the boy, and he was healed from that moment. Matthew 17:17-18

                Jesus knew something that we all have to learn. Mountain top experiences are great, but we live in the valley. Jesus used his times away to refresh himself, so that he could go back into the valley. We all need time away from the routine of our lives. Those times help us to be refreshed and to refocus. We also need to be ready to jump back into the fray. We were called to serve our Lord in the valley, not camp out on the mountain top.

                When Jesus was about to face the most difficult time in his life, he picked up a towel and washed the disciples’ feet. When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. "Do you understand what I have done for you?" he asked them. "You call me 'Teacher' and 'Lord,' and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another's feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them. John 13:12-17