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Thursday, March 21, 2019

Like An Unseen Chess Master


Yesterday was the Jewish holiday of Purim. You’ll find the origin of that celebration in the book of Esther. An interesting thing about the book of Esther is that it is the only one in the Bible in which the name of God is completely absent. 


However – and this is important to us in 2019 – from the first chapter to the last, God’s presence is evident to anyone with spiritual eyes to see. Unseen, yet always in the background, God moves people and controls circumstances like a Chess Master controls pawns, kings, and queens on the chess board. 


I doubt there’s a person reading this who cannot testify of the many times  God seemed absent in your circumstances, but in retrospect, you recognized His presence and His hand in even your darkest times.


The Jewish holiday of Purim should serve as a reminder to every Christian that God is not absent from our life, even when things seem out of control. Purim is evidence that what the Psalmist wrote is ever true:


“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore, we will not fear, though the earth should change and though the mountains slip into the heart of the sea; Though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains quake at its swelling pride.” (Psalm 46)


The unseen God is always on His throne. He is always aware of our situations, and He is always active in our life.


Always.


Sunday, March 17, 2019

You Are Not Alone - part three


This is part three of the message I preached at the 55+ community of men and women living at an independent living facility. You can find parts one and two at these links: https://thecontemplativecatholicconvert.blogspot.com/2019/03/you-are-not-alone-part-one.html 

and here: https://thecontemplativecatholicconvert.blogspot.com/2019/03/you-are-not-alone-part-two.html   
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As I prepared for this message, I thought to compare the faith-destroying lyrics of George Jones’ haunting melody with a hymn whose lyrics are faith-building. It was written by Fanny Crosby.

Many of you know she was blinded by illness when she was six months old. Here is one of those hymns written while she lived her life in her wilderness. But she knew she was not alone in her wilderness. She knew her Savior was always there, with her, in her wilderness:

He Hideth My Soul

A wonderful Savior is Jesus my Lord,
A wonderful Savior to me;
He hideth my soul in the cleft of the rock,
Where rivers of pleasure I see.

“He hideth my soul in the cleft of the rock,
That shadows a dry, thirsty land;
He hideth my life in the depths of His love,
And covers me there with His hand,
And covers me there with His hand.”

Have you ever been in a dry, thirsty land? There’s not a person on this planet who has not been there – multiple times in their life.

And some of you reading this are right now in that dry, thirsty land. Please, remember the truth of God: He hideth you soul in the cleft of the rock, that shadows a dry, thirsty land; He hideth your life in the depths of His love, and covers you there with His hand.

Crosby’s hymn continues:

“When clothed with His brightness transported I rise
To meet Him in clouds of the sky,
His perfect salvation, His wonderful love,
I’ll shout with the millions on high.”

Oh! Why would churches fill the hearts of their faithful during Good Friday with such hopeless words as “You’ve got to walk this lonesome valley by yourself” instead of hope-filled words like “He hideth my soul in the cleft of the rock . . .and covers me there with His hand”?

Oh, Lord! Help us – Lord cause us to ever be alert to subtle and not so subtle lies when we listen to the news, when we watch the television – even when we hear some sermons and hymns in our churches – help us to distinguish your truth from Satan’s half-truths. Remind us how Jesus responded to Satan’s innuendos: Jesus said, IT IS WRITTEN!

No wonder the Savior warned His disciples – including you and me:

“[E]veryone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded on the rock. Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not act on them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and it fell—and great was its fall.” (Matthew 7:24-27)

If we do not know God’s word, if His counsel is not part of the warp and woof of our souls, then we live in constant danger of destruction when life’s storms thunder across our lives.

As I close let me remind you and me once again of only a few of God’s promises to His children that we find in Scripture:
If God is for us, who is against us? . . . Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?. . .  But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8)
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You have anointed my head with oil; My cup overflows. Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. (Psalm 23)
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are Mine! “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; And through the rivers, they will not overflow you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be scorched, Nor will the flame burn you. For I am the Lord your God, The Holy One of Israel, your Savior.” (Isaiah 43)
We are two and a half weeks into the Season of Lent – a time many churches set aside to encourage the faithful in the pews to reflect on the life, ministry, death and resurrection of the Messiah Jesus.

Let’s you and I continue to do that for the health and safety of not only our souls, but for the souls of our families and those around us. God help us become more like Jesus, with increasing obedience to the Father, humility, and faithfulness to the work He calls each of us to do.

A wonderful savior, truly, a wonderful savior is Jesus our Lord.


You are Not Alone - part two


I preached this message on the second Sunday of Lent to a group of 55+ men and woman who live in an independent living facility. I divided it here into three parts for ease of reading. You can find part one herehttps://thecontemplativecatholicconvert.blogspot.com/2019/03/you-are-not-alone-part-one.html

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Let’s go back for a moment to Jesus’ wilderness temptation. Satan tried to seduce the Son of God to doubt His mission. The devil challenged the Lord Jesus with these words: “If you are the Son of God.” And the Serpent’s strategy has not changed for two millennia. He still tries to seduce us into doubting our relationship with God and into thinking we are all alone in our trials and heartaches and confusions.

But now, please now remember how Jesus responded to every one of Satan’s lies. He responded with the word of God.  And THAT is precisely how you and I must fight our spiritual battles: With the Word of God.  That’s why the apostle Paul wrote this to the Christians at Ephesus:

“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might. Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.”

“Therefore, take up the full armor of God, so that you will be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand firm therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace; in addition to all, taking up the shield of faith with which you will be able to extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” (Ephesians 6)

Those are not trivial instructions. Better than the slingshot and stone that felled Goliath, Paul’s guidance here provides us essential spiritual armor for defense against our malicious spiritual enemy.

That spiritual armor is an IMPREGNABLE barrier against the onslaught of the devil’s lies, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God, is an invincible weapon against Satan’s deceptions.

Listen! On this second Sunday of Lent – as will be true throughout the year and throughout our lives – you and I are in a continuous battle. And unless we remain vigilant to the spiritual war, the enemy will take advantage of our weakest areas, and move again against us.

That’s surely one ‘take-away’ from the Lord’s warning to His disciples in the thirteenth chapter of Mark’s gospel. The context of the text I am about to share is the second coming of Christ. But the principle of being on the alert applies equally to our day by day walk through our own life-wilderness:

Mark 13 “Take heed, keep on the alert; for you do not know when the appointed time will come. It is like a man away on a journey, who upon leaving his house and putting his slaves in charge, assigning to each one his task, also commanded the doorkeeper to stay on the alert. Therefore, be on the alert—for you do not know when the master of the house is coming, whether in the evening, at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning— in case he should come suddenly and find you asleep. What I say to you I say to all, ‘Be on the alert!’” (verses 33-36)

Remember with me, please, what happened in the next chapter of Mark’s gospel. Here is how Mark records it in Mark 14:32-42:

They came to a place named Gethsemane; and He said to His disciples, “Sit here until I have prayed.” And He took with Him Peter and James and John, and began to be very distressed and troubled. And He said to them, “My soul is deeply grieved to the point of death; remain here and keep watch.” And He went a little beyond them, and fell to the ground and began to pray that if it were possible, the hour might pass Him by. And He was saying, “Abba! Father! All things are possible for You; remove this cup from Me; yet not what I will, but what You will.”

And He came and found them sleeping, and said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep watch for one hour? Keep watching and praying that you may not come into temptation; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Again He went away and prayed, saying the same words. And again He came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy; and they did not know what to answer Him. And He came the third time, and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? It is enough; the hour has come; behold, the Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going; behold, the one who betrays Me is at hand!”

My brothers and sisters! Stay alert! Our spirit is willing to watch and pray and read and reflect. And we make resolutions to do better tomorrow. But as important as resolutions are, it really is important to get into a routine, a habit, of doing the right things, of feeding our spirits the right food and drink – prayer and reading and reflection on God’s word.

You can find the conclusion of my message in part three at this link:


You Are Not Alone - part one

I’ve only seen Michelangelo’s painting on the Sistine Chapel in magazines or art books. What caught my attention as I prepared this message was the way Michelangelo imagined how Adam became a living soul. God reached His finger to touch Adam’s – suggesting when their fingers touched, life would flow from God into Adam.

Artistic license aside, that’s poor theology. God did not reach out His finger to touch Adam’s to give him life. Here is how Moses describes it in Genesis 2:7 “Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being. 

God breathed the breath of life into Adam’s nostrils. That image invokes for me the image of mouth to mouth resuscitation. That’s important, especially when contrasted with Michelangelo’s painting. God did not remain at a distance – as Michelangelo painted it. God bent down and moved as close to Adam as a lover moves toward His beloved.

And dust came to life.

The theme of my message today is this: Be on the alert for false images, false teachers, and especially for subtle theological lies.

Let me share with you yet another example of a subtle and – this one – a very poisonous lie. Many of you have heard the lyrics of this song in your churches, especially on Good Friday. ‘Lonesome Valley’ was written by George Jones.

I’ve referred to this song in the past, and while I do not mean to seem unnecessarily redundant, the lyrics – especially after the nightmare I’ve been through with Nancy’s stroke in January – the lyrics grip my heart in a vise. I think of them now as demonic-inspired in their poisonous deception:

You gotta walk that lonesome valley
And you gotta it by yourself
Nobody else can walk it for you
You gotta walk it by yourself.

Let me stop here a moment and proclaim to you that no where in all of Scripture does God ever tell His children bought by the blood of Jesus, NO WHERE does God even hint that we’re alone in our struggles and our trials. 

Never. Not one verse. Not one sentence. Not one word.

The song continues:
Jesus walked this lonesome valley
And he had to walk it by Himself
Nobody else could walk it for Him
He had to walk, walk it by Himself.

Are you kidding me? Even during that 40-days of wilderness trial, the Holy Spirit was with Him. And just before His capture and subsequent crucifixion, Jesus said to His disciples: Jesus answered them . . . Behold, an hour is coming, and has already come, for you to be scattered, each to his own home, and to leave Me alone; and yet I am not alone, because the Father is with Me.” (John 16:31-32)

Jones’ lyrics continue to wash over the hurting and frightened child of God like battery acid:

You must go and stand your trials
You have to stand it by yourself
Nobody else can stand it for you
You have to stand it by yourself.

For a time during those dark days of January and February this year as Nancy lay in an ICU bed, I thought the message of those lyrics was true. I had surrendered to Satan’s malevolent whispers. And I am sharing this with you again because there have been times that YOU also have believed Satan’s whispers: “You are alone in this. God has left you to deal with it all.”

Perhaps, for some of you reading this, today is one of those times.

Oh! How often the Holy Spirit reminded me of the 23rd Psalm during my nightmarish days: “Even though I walk through the valley of death’s shadow, I will fear no evil.” Why did the psalmist fear no evil?  Because God was with him. Always. Just as God is with every everyone bought with the blood of Jesus and follow Christ as their Lord and Master and King and Savior.

Yet, my faith was so shaken by Nancy’s sudden illness, I could only recite the psalm with my mouth. The promises could not enter my heart.

The lyrics then leave us with this consuming darkness:

Oh, you gotta walk that lonesome valley
Yeah, you gotta walk it by yourself
Nobody else is gonna walk it for you
You gotta walk, walk by yourself.

Let me trumpet it again: Those lyrics are demonic lies. Don’t listen to them. Don’t sing them. Don’t believe them. Counter them with the promises of God – even if all you can do is recite them with your mouth.

Parts two and three continue my encouragement to trust God, who is so worthy of our trust, and to trust God’s word over the words of others.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Unbreakable Promise


I never had a father who loved me. I’ll be 69 in two months, and you’d think by now the sadness would have evaporated long ago. But it still lingers. The memories of my loss still drift to the surface of my thoughts from time to time. 

Like this morning as I talked with the Lord. 

Albert left us when I was four. I sat on our black couch with silver threads throughout the fabric when Mom told me daddy wasn’t coming home any more. 

I later learned he’d told the judge at the custody hearing that he’d place Andrea and me in an orphanage if he got custody of us. 

Several years passed, and Mom married Tom. I was ten. Andrea was eight. He adopted us and gave us his last name. That was about all we got from him. I don’t remember him ever hugging me, encouraging me, joking with me, attending school events with me. What I do remember is his volatile temper and emotional cruelty to all three of us. 

Why am I telling this to you? Because during our conversation this morning, I thought God asked me to share it with you – for this reason: 

First, if you and your wife have divorced – PLEASE do not divorce your children. 

Sixty-nine years from today, the loss your children will experience day after day and year after year because of your absence – the loss will still linger. It will still hurt – sixty-nine years from today. 

Yes, it would be so much better for everyone if you and your wife reconcile, if you learn to love each other again as you loved one another when you stood together at the marriage altar. But if such reconciliation cannot or will not happen, please, DO NOT forsake your children. Boys and girls – and young men and women – NEED their daddy in their lives. 

Second, if you grew up – or are growing up – without a dad in your life, you can still know the love of a Father – a faithful, ‘always-in-your-life’ companion who will never reject you; He will never turn away from you; He will never give you His name and little else. 



I know Him as my heavenly Father. I first learned of His matchless, selfless, and unconditional love for me when I was 22. We’ve been with each other ever since. Sometimes, if I’m quiet enough and still enough, I can feel His embrace. And I hear Him whisper in my thoughts: “You are My beloved son. I love you very, very much.” And I call Him “Daddy” most of the time when we talk together.

No one abandoned by a parent needs to be an orphan. The Father in heaven delivered His Son Jesus to death so you and I might know, on the most personally intimate level, that we might know Him as our passionate, affectionate, and faithful “Daddy.” 

Were you – or are you – forsaken by your earthly father? Years ago, I memorized one of His many promises: “Even if my father and mother abandon me, the Lord will hold me close.”* 

You are not alone.

I hope that unbreakable promise by God Himself will comfort and encourage you, too.



*Psalm 27:10, NLT

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Dust and Ashes

For you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19)


The season of Lent is a time when many Christians reflect on the faithfulness of their walk with Christ. It’s a time when we focus on His life, His death, and His resurrection. In churches that celebrate Lent, congregants receive ashes on their forehead, usually in the sign of a cross. The person placing the ashes says something like this: “You are dust, and to dust you will return. Repent and believe the gospel.” 

“Dust.” That's an important reality too many Christians overlook. To some, especially to those who think more of themselves than they ought, the idea that we are mere dust is a slap across the face. 

Dust? Me? I don’t think so. 

Yet 100 years from today, the multi-billionaire living in a mansion, and the homeless person living under a bridge will each be nothing more than dust or ashes. 

And because our bodies will return to dust, Jesus’ words in Matthew 4:17 toll with an ominous urgency: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Why? Although our body will decay to dust, our souls will not. They are eternal. They will live forever – either with the Lord Jesus in heaven, or with Satan in hell. 

Forever. 

That is why Jesus warned repeatedly throughout His ministry about repentance and obedience to the gospel. That is why His apostles did the same. And that is why all true Christians today proclaim the same message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  

What does repentance look like? It looks like stopping what God says is wrong – and determining to not do it again. And, by the way, what God says is wrong is not determined by the culture, or by educators, or by the courts, or even by some church leaders. Their opinions are not only irrelevant when they contradict God’s truth, they are inescapably poisonous to everyone who follows their guidance instead of God’s holy Word. 

Lent lasts only 40 days – from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday. But our reflection on Christ’s life, death, resurrection – and our obedience to His commandments must extend far beyond Easter. 

Our eternal destiny is inextricably tied to what we do with Jesus every day of our lives until we breathe our last. 

Please, make the right choice.  Repent, and obey the gospel.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Not Forsaken

I recently read Isaiah 49:14: “But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me, and the Lord has forgotten me.” And I wondered how Israel could think such a thing? Chosen by God Himself through the loins of Abraham – whom God called 'friend' (2 Chronicles 20:7) – Zion convinced herself that God had turned His back on her. I know how such thoughts can take root. For a brief period in recent days it happened to me. Brief – but it happened. And I know the same thing has happened in the past to many other men and women who’ve given their hearts to God, and whom God calls His friends (see John 15:15). Thoughts like these often consume us when events turn disastrous, when heaven seems like brass, and we think our desperate prayers get no further than our lips. No wonder it is so easy to believe the lies whispered from the caverns of hell, “The Lord has forsaken you. The Lord has forgotten you.” But read the next verse in Isaiah – verse 15: “Can a woman forget her nursing child, and have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, but I will not forget you. Behold, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands, your walls are continually before me.” Who will we believe? Oh, Holy Spirit!  Help us to NOT believe everything we think. Help us take every thought captive to obedience to your word, and to rest in your unchanging faithfulness to your promises. For the sake of Jesus and His honor. Amen.

Monday, March 4, 2019

What Do You Know - part two

(This is part two of the message I preached on Sunday, March 3 at the independent living facility. You can find part one here: http://tinyurl.com/yxgedwnf )

 I learned a few things about myself and about our God during those nightmarish four weeks after Nancy’s stroke. And the lessons are not yet over. In part one I talked about God’s unfathomable mercy. Here now is the second thing I learned in those early weeks.

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Tears dripped down my cheeks as I drove north on the I-95 at 65 MPH toward my friend’s home. I’d just left Nancy at the Rehabilitation hospital for the evening.

“Lord,” I sobbed. “Please help my unbelief.”  I wanted so much to trust God to bring Nancy to complete recovery and to get us HOME where we could again be surrounded by familiar things in our house and surrounded by friends whom we missed so terribly.

Suddenly God broke into my thoughts. I will never forget the two questions He asked me. The first was this: “Richard, what do you know about Me?”

His question was so abrupt, it stopped my tears. I thought about the question for a few moments and then responded:

Lord, I know you cause all things, even nightmarish things, to work together for good. Romans 8:28 came to my mind:  And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.

I know You will never let me be tested above what I am able to bear. (Many of you will recognize that truth from 1 Corinthians 10:13).

Lord, I know Jesus is Lord of heaven and earth. Philippians 2:10-11 came to my mind: [At] the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

I then said to Him, “I know you never leave me, never forsake me, that you are always with me, even in my nightmares.” Once again scripture came to mind, such as Isaiah 43:2-3 “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; And through the rivers, they will not overflow you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be scorched, nor will the flame burn you. For I am the Lord your God, The Holy One of Israel, your Savior;


I was about to continue my litany of the things I know about God when He interrupted me with the follow-on question: “Why do you know those things are true?”

I didn’t have to think about my response. I answered, “Because the Bible tells me so.”

Then the Holy Spirit connected the dots for me. All of my questions and my doubts and fears and uncertainties, they all find their answers in what I know to be true because God said those things are true.

Don’t misunderstand me, please. I do not mean to suggest God always heals or reunites or fixes everything that is broken. He clearly does not.

As the Lord Jesus reminds us (Luke 4): “There were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the sky was shut up for three years and six months, when a great famine came over all the land; and yet Elijah was sent to none of them, but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet; and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.”

And oh, by the way, if you remember this text from Luke’s gospel, Jesus spoke these words in His hometown of Nazareth. Here is what happened next:

“And all the people in the synagogue were filled with rage as they heard these things; and they got up and drove Him out of the city and led Him to the brow of the hill on which their city had been built, in order to throw Him down the cliff.

Oh, God help us to not get so angry or disappointed with Jesus that we throw our faith over a cliff. I confess, that thought crossed my mind – if only for a moment. But it DID cross my mind.

And even now as I write this I remember thinking in response to that temptation: “But Lord, where would I go?  You have the words of eternal life.”

Why God heals some and not others, why He fixes some things and not others – no one knows. But healed or not, fixed or not, reunited or not – God’s word is truth, whether or not we believe it to be truth and whether or not is seems to be truth.

God’s word remains and always will be truth.

So, what can all this that I learned mean for you reading this?

Right now, whatever your circumstances, what do YOU know to be true?  And just as important, Why do you know it to be true? 

If what you know is not based on God’s eternal truth, if what you know is not rooted and nurtured in God’s eternal truth, then your life is in grave danger of collapsing around you when the life’s storms ravage through your life like a never-ending tornado.

I made two points in my message to the men and women at the independent living facility. It’s the same points I hope to be making in this two-part essay.

God unveiled to me once again – and this time more deeply than I’d ever known it – He is so much more merciful to us than we can ever hope to comprehend this side of eternity.  When we are faithless, He remains faithful to His covenantal promise to us, He remains faithful to His unconditional promise to us. When we deserve nothing less than judgment. He instead wraps His arms around us and draws us close to His chest.

And God reminded me His Word is as true and faithful today as it was when writers of Scripture first penned His words on parchment. May He therefore help us all to make it an ever increasingly sturdy foundation for life.

And so thanks be to God alone for His mercy and for His unfailing promises of love, hope, encouragement, chastisement – all of which have their yes and amen in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen.


Sunday, March 3, 2019

What Do You Know? Part One

In mid-January of this year my wife and I flew from Georgia to Florida to visit my mother’s grave. The evening before the unveiling, Nancy cried out from the hotel bathroom, “Ow! Ow!”  She came out complaining of the worst headache of her life.

I am a registered nurse. I know those words describe the classic symptoms of a brain hemorrhage. Within seconds I called the front desk and told them to call 911. A few hours later Nancy was undergoing emergency brain surgery to stop the bleeding and to relieve the intracranial pressure that would have killed her – or worse – if it had not been relieved.

Nancy spent the next three weeks in the intensive care unit at the Boca Raton Regional Hospital. She spent the last of four weeks in an acute rehabilitation hospital where she met each day with physical, occupational and speech/cognitive therapies. 
We returned home to Georgia  after nearly five weeks to begin a long road to what we continue to pray is full recovery. 
I did not do our nightmare well. What was and is most distressing for me is the undisguisable recognition that while Nancy was in the ICU for three weeks, what I have taught and preached for 46 years about faith and trust in God turned out to be completely insufficient for myself. I found myself losing trust in God to answer my prayers and the prayers of everyone else. 
My faltering faith embarrassed me. It was so bad I half-expected God pull the rug completely out from under me. I was in absolute turmoil. I’d never experienced anything like that in my entire 46 years of Christian life and I suddenly discovered I am not at all the mature Christian I thought I was. 
Like Peter, who lived with the Lord for three years and who believed with all his being that he would never deny His Lord, I have lived with the Lord all these decades and never would have believed I could be so weak in my faith. 
So, what is my point in telling this to you? I have two points. Point number one is this: God’s mercy is unfathomable. 
The subtle and not-so-subtle accusations and fears I’d expressed in my heart toward God should have earned me His anger, His resentment, His dismissal of my soul from His presence.  How dare I – after 46 years of life-experience with Him and with such a wealth of Bible knowledge – how dare I succumb to the fears inspired by the devil himself?  How dare I not turn my heart toward God and say to Him, “Not my will, but Thine be done?” 
But God did not dismiss me. He did not resent me. He was not angry with me. He did not give me what I deserved. 
I’ve written a few times about the verbal exchange between the Lord and Peter recorded in the last chapter of John’s gospel. That exchange came back to me a few days before I sat down to type this essay and it is important to the message of God’s mercy toward us. 
The New Testament writers used two words for “love” – phileo and agape. Phileo (fil-EH-oh) carries the idea of a close fraternal affection. The special friendship of David and Jonathan is an example of phileo love. (1 Samuel 18:1-3). Agape love is often used to describe God's unconditional, merciful, and enduring love for you and me. It’s also the same kind of love He commands us to have for Him and for others.  
Beginning with verse 15 of John chapter 21 we read this: When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon, son of John, do you love (agape) me more than these?” He said to him, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love (phileo) you.” He said to him, "Feed my lambs.” 
He then said to him a second time, "Simon, son of John, do you love (agape) me?” He said to him, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love (phileo) you." He said to him, "Tend my sheep.” 
He said to him the third time, "Simon, son of John, do you love (phileo) me?” Peter was distressed that he had said to him a third time, "Do you love (phileo) me?” and he said to him, "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love (phileo) you.” (Jesus) said to him, "Feed my sheep.” 
A modern version of the conversation might sound something like this: 
“Peter, do you love me with all your heart?”
“Lord, I have great affection for you.”
“Feed My lambs.”
“Peter, do you really love me?”
“Lord, I think you are wonderful.”
“Tend My sheep.”
“Peter, do you have great affection for me?”
“Lord, you know I do.”
“Feed My sheep.”
Two things caught my attention in this exchange between the Lord and Peter. First, Peter felt miserable about his thrice denial of his best friend and Lord. Miserable, and self-condemned. But then I noticed how the Savior tried to help Peter move beyond his guilt. When Peter wouldn't say – couldn’t say – he loved Jesus, the Lord came down to his level: “Okay, my friend. Do you have affection for me?” 
How like Christ to be so gentle to our wounded spirits. 
The second thing I noticed here – and this is equally important – after each agape/phileo exchange the Lord’s charge to Peter was essentially the same: “Feed My sheep.” 
In other words, “Peter, I know you feel guilty, but your repentance restored our relationship. Your sorrow and guilt are unnecessary. Don’t let them keep you from your task to tend My flock." 
How like the merciful Christ to call us out of our sorrow. How like Him to renew our relationship – vessels of clay that we are – and set us about the work He’s given us to do. 
But here now is how the Lord applied this verbal exchange to my circumstances a few days ago:  

“Richard, do you trust me with all your heart?”
“Lord, I trust you a little”

“Feed My lambs.”

“Richard, do you trust me with all your heart?”
“Lord, I trust you a little.”

“Tend My sheep.”

“Richard, do you trust me a little?”
“Yes, Lord, I trust you a little.”
“Feed My sheep.”
This is important not only for me, but for some of you reading this who may be going through your own continuing nightmare: Our merciful God always comes to us, again and again and again, to wrap His tender arms around you and me and come down to our level in order to raise us up to His. 
Did I sense His embrace during my turmoil? No. I did not. But in retrospect, remembering all the times someone sent me an email or a letter of encouragement, remembering all the financial support so many sent to us while we were in Florida, remembering all the times the Holy Spirit led me to the right person at the right time to help me get through another maze of urgent and not-so-urgent ‘to-do’ lists when it was all I could do to remember my phone number – remembering all those times makes me now very conscious of His tender arms embracing me.

It is His abundant mercy that He did NOT give me what my faithlessness deserved. He instead gave me what I so desperately needed. And He is doing the same for you right now in your own nightmare – whether you can feel Him or not. 
The second thing God taught me occurred after I’d left Nancy at the rehabilitation hospital for the evening.  I will share that lesson next time, in part two.