Sunday, June 21, 2009

Life-giving Water

Living in the Southwest, I've become much more aware of the importance of water. Put simply, water equals life. Where there is water, there is life. Without it, there's not. It's that simple. This was clearly illustrated during our drive through New Mexico last week. Interstate 25 more or less follows the Rio Grande through most of the state and as you drive along the highway you see clearly the difference: near the river, the land is green and verdant. But away from the river, it is dry, parched and covered with sparse grass and sage. Using Google Earth, follow the course of the river south from Albuquerque and you will see for yourself. You have to zoom in fairly close, because the irrigated region is quite narrow compared to the vast open spaces on both sides of the river.

Compare these pictures of New Mexico (or Arizona, or any other southwestern state) with those from someplace back east, like Connecticut, since I used that as an illustration yesterday. Do you see the difference? When you live in a place like Connecticut, or almost anywhere east of the Mississippi, or even western Washington or Oregon, you can forget the importance of water because it exists in abundance most of the time. The land is lush and green and full of life. In such conditions it is easy to take water for granted.

Scripture talks a lot about water. I like Isaiah 41:18, which reads:

I will make rivers flow on barren heights,
and springs within the valleys.
I will turn the desert into pools of water,
and the parched ground into springs.

Or consider Isaiah 44:3

For I will pour water on the thirsty land,
and streams on the dry ground;
I will pour out my Spirit on your offspring,
and my blessing on your descendants.

There are many other great verses like this, so many that to recite them all here would make for a very long post. When I look at the dry land around me and consider these verses, I realize the significance of God's promise. He is saying that he will give life to his people. Where God's Spirit flows there is life. Without it, there is death.

Jesus pointed to something quite similar when he said these words:

I am the vine; you are the branches. If a person remains in me and I in him, that person will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.

In a grapevine, or other such vine, the vine brings water and other nutrients to the branches. If they detach themselves from the vine, they no longer will receive what they need to live. They will wither and die. It's like moving away from the Rio Grande. You can't go far before you will find yourself parched and lifeless. I want to be where there is water. I want to be filled with life. Scripture makes it clear where I need to be for that to happen. So why do I choose to wander into the desert?

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Don't Fence Me In

Although I was born in the southeastern United States, I've spent most of my life west of the Mississippi, the vast majority of that time being in the Rocky Mountain states or further west. I've spent time back east, most particularly the summer after high school that I worked in Philadelphia. But in my heart I do prefer the open spaces that we have out west. My wife, who grew up in Montana, jokes that in Montana they considered the neighbors too close if you could see their house at all. I'm not quite that extreme. I enjoy the comforts of the city. But I love being able to drive down the road and see for miles around me, as we can here in Arizona. I'm not talking just a couple miles either--I'm talking 50-100 miles at times.

We just returned from a trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico. From our town that's a 9-hour drive one way, including time for a meal along the way. It's some of the most open highway you can imagine, with vistas that stretch from horizon to horizon. Admittedly, not all of it is the most scenic country, but it is open. You won't feel fenced in.

While taking a lunch break during our drive my wife and I were looking at the road atlas. We had just covered the stretch of 60 miles from Lordsburg to Deming, a stretch in which there are only a couple exits from the highway leading either to a small gas/souvenir station or to a dusty road leading off into the distance. Beyond that, no homes, no inhabitants. Just endless open space. The atlas before us happened to be open to the pages showing Colorado and Connecticut. We recently finished watching the Gilmore Girls series so we were perusing the map of Connecticut, trying to piece together the various places mentioned in the show. What caught our attention though was that the entire state of Connecticut could almost fit in the space between Lordsburg and Deming. What a constrast when you consider the number of people who live in Connecticut versus the absence of people in that same amount of space in New Mexico. I don't intend this as a criticism or put-down of Connecticut. I'm sure it's a lovely place. Maybe someday I'll have the chance to visit. But there is a big difference between living in the wide-open spaces of the west and living in the more populated spaces of the east. Given the choice, I'll stay with the west, thank you very much.

Having traveled a lot of places in my life, I continue to be amazed at the diversity of God's creation. Each place has its own unique character and beauty if we are open to seeing it. The same is true of people. It's easy to dismiss a person or place as being ugly or worthless if we don't stop and reflect on God's hand in shaping it. Yes, some places and people may be more attractive in appearance than others, but every person and every place bears the marks of the Creator's hand. I'm still learning to see it at times, but I know it's there.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Now and the Not Yet

One of the paradoxes of faith in Christ is the tension between what we are now and what we shall become. On the one hand, the Scriptures assure us that once we submit to Christ, we are already complete in him here and now (consider Colossians 1:22 and 2:10 or Romans 5:1 among others.) Yet at the same time we are encouraged to continue to grow into his likeness (as for example in Philippians 2:12, Colossians 3:1-17 and many others places.) Some like to use the fancy theological terms justification and sanctification to clarify these two conditions. While not rejecting that distinction, I find I wrestle to understand what this looks like in daily life. As I have shared recently, I am learning to live in the freedom that comes from my standing in Christ here and now. But I also am painfully aware of the degree to which I still fall short of his perfection. Amy Grant had a song years ago that spoke of this:

No longer what we were before
But not all that we will be
Tomorrow when we lock the door on all our compromising
When He appears
He'll draw us near and we'll be
Changed by His glory
Wrapped up in His glory

But I'm caught in between the now and the not yet
Sometimes it seems like forever and ever
That I've been reaching to be all that I am
But I'm only a few steps nearer
Yet I'm nearer

I recently relocated one of my favorite quotations, from Martin Luther. It echoes this sentiment:

This life therefore is not righteousness,
But growth in righteousness;
Not health, but healing;
Not being, but becoming;
Not rest, but exercise.
We are not yet what we shall be
But we are growing toward it.
The process is not yet finished,
But it is going on.
This is not the end,
But it is the road.
All does not yet gleam in glory,
But all is being purified.

"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." 1 John 3:2

Monday, June 8, 2009

Happy Anniversary!

Eighteen years ago today I married my best friend. She's been a faithful and true companion throughout this journey together and I look forward to sharing the next 18 years and beyond with her.

Happy Anniversary, my beloved Sharilyn!

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Heavens Declare

One of our goals for this summer is to visit some of the interesting sites around southern Arizona before we leave for another term working overseas. Last week we made our first excursion, visiting the Kitt Peak National Observatory. Kitt Peak is located about 60 miles southwest of Tucson, so it's an easy day trip. Our kids were a bit skeptical about how interesting it would be, but I think we all came away impressed.

Kitt Peak is one of the premier sites for astronomy in the world. On this single small mountain there are 24 telescopes, a solar observatory and 2 radio telescopes. There is also a small visitor's center where you can learn about the observatories and astronomy. The day we visited the skies were a bit overcast and it was very windy so there were few visitors. In fact, we were able to get an almost personal tour of one of the telescopes. (We were accompanied by two German astronomists who work with the solar telescope.) The 4m Mayall telescope was the second largest in the world when it was completed in 1970. Now, because of advances in astronomy and the art of casting telescopic mirrors, it is only a mid-sized but is still actively used. Nonetheless, it was a pretty amazing piece of engineering.

The magnitude of the telescopes themselves was quite fascinating to me. But even more stimulating was the information about the universe presented in the visitor center. I have not studied astronomy much (I think the only time I really studied it at all was in 9th grade!), so while I am in general familiar with general information about the universe, I hadn't really reflected on it. Perhaps you were already aware that the Milky Way galaxy alone is 100,000 light years across, a light year measuring approximately 5,878,630,000,000 miles. The numbers boggle the mind! But the Milky Way is only one of the estimated 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe. The nearest star to our sun is Proxima Centauri, which is located 1.29 parsecs away, a parsec equalling approximately 3.262 light years. The distances are incredible.

As I tried to grasp in some limited way these vast numbers and distances, the improbability of life arising by chance on some small planet such as ours stood out to me. The conditions for life to occur are so specific. If our sun were a bit smaller and hotter, or larger, or closer or more distant, then life would not be sustainable. Yet here we are. One can attribute this to random natural selection, or one can admit that such specific detail points to an intelligent creator. If I were an astronomer, I think I would be overwhelmed by the display of God's hand in the universe. This is precisely what the Psalmist stated when he wrote:

The heavens declare the glory of God the skies proclaim the work of his hand

Similarly Isaiah proclaimed:

Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one, and calls them each by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength not one of them is missing.

Imagine that: human astronomers have only begun to study the stars in the sky. Most stars are given a simply letter and number designation, although some have fuller names. But God knows the name of every star in the universe already! Next time you look up at the night sky, reflect on this and remember the awesome and incredible Creator who shaped this universe and holds it together.