24 March, 2015

Morning Prayer: Intense Pursuit

A few years ago I taught at a small Christian school where each day began with a brief devotional time called Morning Prayer.  Over the two weeks leading up to Easter I'm publishing posts derived from devotionals I shared or experiences I had during that year, all having to do with presence and absence, generosity and loss.

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I harbor a cautious favoritism toward this fact of life: that words possess profound power.  I cherish that fact because that power can be richly life-giving, and I am cautious because that power can be utterly destructive.  I want to tell you about one constructively powerful statement that someone unknowingly spoke into my life during my first semester of college.

I went to a small Christian college whose curriculum required everyone to take a Bible course.  So for my first semester I signed up for the generic “Intro to the Bible” course.  I happened to be placed in a section taught by a man named Dale Brantner.  Dale was a very warm, caring man with an obvious love for his students; I don’t think he could’ve hidden that compassion if he'd tried.  He was a husky fellow with a ginger beard and a big smile, and usually wore cargo pants and hiking boots to class.  He was a pastor in addition to being an adjunct professor, but we soon learned that he’d lived a very exciting life before settling down in a sleepy Pennsylvania college town: as a young man Dale had worked as a shepherd in the countryside surrounding Jerusalem.

Dale's class ended up being surprisingly rich and thrilling because he could bring Old Testament events and locations to life for us.  He knew what it meant to spend long nights awake in a cold, open field, listening for any threats against his flock’s safety.  He knew what it meant to risk his own physical safety to go after one who was lost.  (I loved that as a pastor he was still doing essentially the same thing, just caring for rural Pennsylvanians instead of Middle Eastern sheep.)

Dale also knew Hebrew, so he could help us pull deeper meaning out of texts we thought we knew.  One day we were discussing Psalm 23 and came to verse 6:


Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

Dale stopped long enough to point out that the Hebrew word used where we have “follow” is the word radaph. Radaph means to run after, to intensely pursue.

He then moved on, scribbling notes about something else onto the whiteboard, but I was stuck on verse 6 and had to stay there for a minute.

At that time in my life I was carrying a lot of emotional "baggage" which I won't detail here.  In theory I knew that God loved me, but I didn’t believe He could like me all that much.  I didn’t know this yet, but the significance of my 4 years in college would rest less in my major and more in the first experiences of having my understanding of God overhauled.  I would begin to re-learn the relationship I could have with Him and how His love for me trickled down deep into the very roots of every part of my life.  I think that day in Dale’s class was one of the first steps.  I left that day with a glimmer of truth poking through the shroud of lies entangling me; I had a new realization that God’s love for me is active, not passive.  It doesn’t distractedly doddle along behind me or sit around waiting for me to engage it.  It chases after me.  It’s so eager to cover me and make me more like Christ and more united with Him that it relentlessly pursues me.

The years since college have held a lot of great things but also a lot of unexpected loss and hardship.  It’s been vitally important to have that moment in Dale’s class ringing in my ears during those difficult times.   It is so good to be reminded that the good things in my life but also, equally, the hard things are really God’s pursuit of me.  They may not feel like goodness and kindness at first, because that relentless pursuit often means pushing me out of my comfort zone, pushing me away from the things in which I find security.  Sometimes goodness and kindness come in storms or in fire or in plagues - whatever it takes to bring me back when I wander, or to keep me close when He sees a threat that I don’t.  He has bound Himself to me.  He pursues and never stops.  He is a good shepherd, and a good shepherd isn't content to passively stand in the background, having promised me "heaven, someday"; He settles in for the long haul and pursues me with presence and joy and help today.  He even ran ahead one night long ago on a hill outside Jerusalem, vaulting Himself into the depths of death so that I would never have to fall that far.  I follow this Shepherd because He first pursued me.

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