The Valley of Decision

How is a “decision” like a valley?  While decision making can overwhelm us when the consequences of the decision weigh heavily on us, this is NOT the meaning of this metaphor as it is found in the Bible.  To apply a common meaning from our time to a metaphor from Bible times in this case will mislead us as to what this means in the Bible.  Sometimes metaphors do not translate well.  Other times they do.  Let the verses before and after and the chapters around those verses be your guide.  This is one reason that understanding the context around the verse is so important for understanding our Bibles..  A good commentary is also helpful.  

Then, how is a “decision” like being in a valley?  How is one like the other?  Douglas Stuart in his commentary on Joel translates with a metaphor that helpfully captures the meaning.  He translates from the Hebrew language, “valley of the verdict” (Joel 3:14, Word Biblical Commentary, Volume 31).  The kind of decision in this case is a verdict.  

How is a verdict like a valley?  For one thing, the particular valley – a real valley – is given the name “Verdict” to emphasize the kind of message from God being delivered by the prophet Joel.  Consider a courthouse scene where the guilty verdict has just been announced by the judge!  In Joel, God is the judge that has just announced the verdict on those in this valley!  

The decision has already been handed down; and God has handed it down.  It will happen on the “Day of the Lord” and that day is urgent and ultimate.  It was urgent to them because judgement soon followed in their own time.  What will happen in our future is not the first time God has judged.  He judged at times in the past; but there is coming a time of ultimate judgement in our future.  What happens then will be a verdict based on decisions already made.  Your decision to respond to the inviting Holy Spirit and turn your life over to Jesus or not will determine if the verdict God hands down on the day of judgement is clemency or condemnation.  We are guilty, but because God is loving, it does not have to be condemnation.  God sent Jesus to offer forgiveness for all our wrongs and the tendency to do wrong which is the deeper problem we have, so that freedom is available to us from God. 

The Bible says that if you declare that you have turned over running your life to Jesus and you trust that he is capable of directing the way you live as powerfully demonstrated by his having overcome death, then you will be saved from this judgement (Romans 10:9).  You are committing yourself to living like Jesus wants you to live with his help. Jesus who is the son of God, took our verdict upon himself and served our death-penalty by being hung on a lethal cross.  He then rose from the grave forging a path that we can follow by his power.  God offers you a better life now and a continuing life later that lasts forever.  

“Mobs and mobs are ready to fight in the valley where the verdict will be served on the day of judgement which looms over us” (Joel 3:14 my rendering).

Stephen Williams

Sledgehammer Mentality

I remember a cold winter for West Tennessee, so cold that the ditches that fed Sugar Creek out on the edge of the neighborhood froze several inches thick.  It was a wonder that it would freeze at all with all the suds and sewer that drained into it.  I remember one day when after discovering how hard the big ditch’s surface was that I scurried on back home and into Dad’s shed out back to collect his sledgehammer.  I returned to the woods intent on seeing how thick the ice was.  I now wonder what Mom or Dad would have thought if they had seen me lugging that sledgehammer and headed on up Owen Avenue toward Margin Street where I would take a right turn and head on down to the dead-end at the deep ditch which was my destination.  I now wonder if Dad might have rushed out the door and tried to catch me because he hated to see me drag his tools outside, much less up the street where he might never see them again.  But I expect I left unnoticed.  I commenced to spend the rest of that frigid day breaking ice and letting off steamy breaths like an oldtimey steam-driven icebreaker ship cutting through the surface toward Sugar Creek.  I had something like that going on in my imagination.  I am sure I came back home soaked with ice crusted jeans and the smell of sweat and sewer. 

Jesus told a brief parable about children playing in the streets.  As children do, their games often involve imitation.  In this case two games are alluded to in the parable: playing wedding and playing funeral (Luke 7:32).  When my grandchildren visit, they continually make up games where they imitate the workers in a variety of occupations and home life.  They act out the situations of life in a kind of rehearsal that prepares them for real life.   Practice makes perfect.

Jesus told the parable to show the obstinate orientation of many people to be unhappy with any game other than the one they want to play.  The people complained because John the Baptist refused to eat very much, and they complained because Jesus came happily eating with sinners.  Jesus saw a kind of tragic humor reflected by how unhappy children are when no one will play the game they choose to play.  This lack of cooperation only leads to a lack of occupation with any fun at all.  The refusal to play is a lonely way to go about living and the smell of selfishness is like burning sulfur or bitter sewer, it irritates the nostrils of everyone around you.   A sledgehammer mentality leads up a creek from a sewer fed ditch.

“Be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma” (Ephesians 5:1-2 NASB).  

Stephen Williams

Fascinating Jesus

Jesus was the one who would focus his attention in the tensest of situations by doodling in the dirt (John 8:6-8).  He was the one who would enter into conversation with the least important person in the house and spar with her about what dogs eat (Mark 7:27-28).  He was the one who would be found alone with a woman dreadful of the company of anyone other than the men she offered her pleasures and offer her inconceivable joy from living water (John 4:4-26).  He was the one who would invite the most impulsively daring disciple to really do exactly what he himself was doing as he strolled across the waves of the lake and then let him begin to sink before saving him (Matthew 14:29-43).  He was the one who would intentionally wait until a dead friend was good and dead as a lesson in how God can fix the worst possible situation (John 11:6-15).  

Jesus was the one who would playfully heal a man halfway of blindness because sometimes when we are healed we still don’t understand what the reason was (Mark 8:16-18 and 22-25). He was the one who would do a miracle so as it could only be noticed by those who were alert with faith like when he turned water into wine and only those sober with faith knew anything about it (John 2:9-10).  He was the one who told riddles and stories to throw his listener’s attention away from what they were so set on thinking or doing so that their eyes could be opened to what they did not want to see (Matthew 13:13; Luke 8:10).  He was the one who could laugh at a foolish man totally blinded by something in his eye as big as a house but nevertheless trying desperately to alleviate the various objectionable indiscretions of more sincere sinners (Matthew 7:1-5).  

Jesus was the one who would pretend to be a stranger on a long walk into the evening and hold out long enough to be recognized by the way he handled food at the table (Luke 24:13-35).  He was the one who would sneak in an impossible image and nudge his listener into pointing out the obvious and only being aware that he had revealed something important after the words had left his mouth (John 3:3-21).  

Jesus was the one who would on the way to solving the biggest problem ever contrived by man, stop and pick up a child (Luke 9:46-48, 51).  He was the one who would wale in grief and sorrow over an enemy blind to the mystery of God’s willingness to love him (Luke 19:41; Matthew 11:18-24).  He was the one who would say just the right thing to those out to trap Him in order to turn the tables on them so they themselves fell in the trap (Luke 20:1-8).  

Over and over again Jesus easily offended the one who was dead set on being offended and offered deliverance to the one who desperately sought it (Matthew 9:10-13).  Jesus walked the dusty road with people with dirty feet; and anyone who meet him had their true dirt and glory pulled out of hiding so that they either objected loudly or surrendered unconditionally (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John).  Some did both, first one and then the other (John 13:6-9).  

Jesus is the Son of God (Matthew 3:17) and Savior of sinners (Luke 15:1-7).  Jesus is king of the kingdom of God and therefore master of everyone who is one of its citizens (Philippians 3:20). 

Stephen Williams

Forgetting

My grandmother had an outside well — no indoor water — and it was a shallow well.  My tendency was to let her fly when it came to fetching water.  I’d drop that long slender galvanized tube into the well like it came out of the bottom of a WWII boomer plane.  This would stir up the mud and change the taste of the water.  It added grit you could not get clear of and that sense you were drinking cold chocolate water with that delectable floating brown color.  

One of the best things you can do is to learn to forget.  This is hard to do for a very good reason.  Once an idea gets into your head, it is like it grows physical roots down to the nerves.  To forget can be like turning a ship.  You have to keep it moving against the force of the current.  You have to throttle it up as the waves try to push you back.  This is tricky when it comes to thoughts.  It can take a lot of practice.

The problem is that our mind becomes fixated on thinking about the very thing we are focused on forgetting.  The effort it takes not to focus requires focus.  The harder we try to ignore our effort to forget, the more we think about it thus binding it to the memory.  Something the Apostle Paul said about our inability to be perfect might be helpful to lick this problem.  

“Not that I have already reached the goal or am already perfect, but I make every effort to take hold of it because I also have been taken hold of by Christ Jesus. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and reaching forward to what is ahead, I pursue as my goal the prize promised by God’s heavenly call in Christ Jesus. Therefore, let all of us who are mature think this way” (Philippians 3:12-15a).  

Paul ties “forgetting” to “reaching”.  He muddies up “forgetting” by adding something else.  Like taking a bitter herb and putting it into a soup.  “Forgetting” becomes something else when you add “reaching”.  It becomes “pursuing”.  “Pursuing” is the soup.  

It really comes down to answering the question, “Who am I?”  That is what Paul is asking.  He is describing his answer in these verses and their context (verses 4-21).  He has been giving testimony about who he is.  He is concerned with the question, “Who am I?” This is the secret to forgetting.  

Before the Christian theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hung from a rope by the neck on Hitler’s orders, he sat thinking as he watched the gallows through the bars of his cell window.  He asked himself this same question: “Who am I” and wrote a poem by that title (Letters from Prison).  He asked himself if he were a person of one kind or the other kind in a comparison he set up between what he could have called the Bonhoeffer he would like verses the one he did not like.  He had thoughts that ran through his mind that fit both versions of himself.  

It really comes down to the choice about deciding who I am.  When an idea you don’t like comes into your thoughts, dispute those thoughts and then switch to the question that is really the one that matters.  Remind yourself who you really are.  “That’s not me!”  I am the one who is reaching for the goal.  So no matter how slow the ship turns, it will turn.  “Pursuing” is who I am.  That is what defines me — not fleeting thoughts that do not fit me.  I am defined by where I am headed.  I am defined by what I am pursuing; and I am in possession of that promise already.  I am defined by the progress I have already made in who I am becoming.  And remember that you are not alone in this striving for the goal.  You have been taken hold of by Jesus.  

Stephen Williams

My Hickory Hill Top

I turn and glance and get a glimpse of deer grazing, fox stalking, rabbits roaming, squirrels dancing across tree limbs over tiny mice hiding in dry grass and racoons waiting for nightfall.  Birds are playing on crystal snow while long legged heron are hiding in the brush as still as bulrush sheltered from waving in the wind by pond banks casting a shadow.  The duck is riding the smell of wet cattails where frogs speak in deep tones, turtles bobble their dark black heads, and fish swish into deep dark cascades beneath the surface.  The trees domineer the distant mural of needle and branch.  The skies canvas the heavens with a happy blue.  These soft songs of praise seek the pleasure of God and every stirring sound is a charm to treasure – every glimpse is pleasant to perceive.  

At first, I enter with a disrupting presence and all fall silent or scurry away.  Drawing my thoughts away to Heaven, they leave behind a pleasant peace.  My small hill is a haven of praise.  Its solitude surrounds me with grace and tranquility erupts to compel my thanks.

Stephen Williams

Connecting the Dots

When I was a bachelor level student I was accumulating courses in history to satisfy my requirement to have a minor.  I had enough credits in Christian studies to amount to both a major and a minor; but I needed a minor in a different area of study.  English was not on my radar.  I was in my final English required course and was already celebrating.  As it so happened, I ended out in Dr. Pinson’s course on the last few centuries of English literature; and my master plan fell to pieces.  Dr. Pinson was great!  He inspired me and I fell in love with literature.  So I minored in English.

A few years later, our children were babies and the church where I was pastor was marginally able to support me without income from another source.  The Tennessee Baptist Convention was that source for my first couple years at Fairview Baptist Church; but when that grant ran its course, it was time for me to find some additional income.  The Dyersburg paper ran an add for someone to teach remedial writing to entering college students who tested at grade school levels in writing.  Since these were remedial courses the necessary credential for this position was a college minor in English as part of a Bachelor of Arts Degree.

I applied and got the opportunity to teach remedial English to prisoners in the Dyersburg State Community College Lake County Extension Center.  Before class started they signed me up to teach Speech since I had 18 hours of communication in my Master of Divinity degree.  I ended out teaching ethics, philosophy, and world religions at the prison before they closed that extension center.  I then moved to the main campus to teach Speech and World Religions for a total of 13 years as an adjunct professor teaching on average five classes a year.  I saw this as God’s provision to support my ministry and when that was no longer necessary, as an outlet to minister to college students.  And it was; but God had more in mind.  I ended out completing an EDD and training ministers in higher education for almost twelve years as a full professor and administrator.  

Looking back I see the providence of God at work in shattering part of my master plan.  God has a way of doing that for us.  Sometimes we are totally blind to the implications of minor choices along the way in our lives; and God’s master plan is at work in the background.  We are blind to how God is caring for us long years in advance by putting the pieces in place to provide the necessary credentials or experience to serve in circumstances we could never have anticipated.  He is getting us ready to do something surprisingly new.  And when this happens it will be in hindsight that we will see how all the little dots are connected. 

I have discovered that God uses our interests to invade our present time so that our futures flourish upon richly prepared soil.  Now I have the pleasure of clear hindsight.  God has been working all things together for good to accomplish His purposes — yes, to accomplish HIS purposes (Romans 8:28).  All that has been poured into my life — every experience — has prepared me to do what I am doing today and what I am doing today — well, God is at work in that, too.  Yes, I minister; I pastor; I listen and share from my pilgrimage to anyone who will ask, and I am starting to do a little writing. Most important though, my studies, experiences, and following my interests have prepared me for the rich fellowship I have with Jesus.  That developing fellowship will be the precursor of the first day of my life in Heaven where the journey will continue.  

Stephen Williams

Pen and Ink

“I have many things to write you, but I don’t want to write to you with pen and ink.  I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face” (3 John 1:13-14).

It was very expensive to write in biblical times.  Writing materials were limited and costly.  They generally were inconvenient to travel with.  Nomads in the desert would find that the outdoor weather conditions made writing materials too bulky to carry and difficult to protect from the elements.  Even though these materials might be attainable, they often chose the outdated technology of rock and chisel since they could choose a good rock wherever they happened to be.  John valued pen and ink for reasons other than the cost of pen, ink, parchment or papyrus.  The purpose with which he wrote was of more value than the cost of the writing materials.  So he wrote down the Gospel.  He wrote the three epistles.  He wrote down the book of Revelation.  The biblical words contained within the pages between today’s leather Bible bindings are so precious in light of the circumstances out of which John and others put them down.  

This was not enough for John.  He wanted to say more than was written.  He wanted to witness with the words he had received from God.  Face to face we find that the limits of pen and ink are only a faded shadow of the illumination brought with personal expressions, nuanced inflections, and vivid gesturing.  The personal touch we bring when we deliver words from God adds so very much!  Our presence brings the Word to life.  When we bring the words of the Bible on our lips with breaths that caress the sounds into living syllables, and with our eyes gleaming with compassionate gestures, we are embodying those words with flesh and blood.  As witnesses of divine revelation we are curriers of God’s transforming scriptures.  These words are transferred over channels of communication so clear that not any high definition transmission could handle the necessary data and no signal would have the strength to transmit the video.  Personal delivery by witnesses emboldens the words as unquestionably real and undeniably valid.   

The Holy Spirit elevates our personal witness and handles this valuable cargo infusing every word uttered in the name of Jesus with the miracle of grace.  God’s lovingkindness enlightens each utterance.  When we come bearing the gift of graceful words that surpass the limits of pen and ink and carefully bring them packaged in human warmth — when we bring those words in His name, the Holy Spirit of God empowers them to touch lives with the purposes of God for the people we care about.  

Colossians 3:16–17 (NAS): “Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.  Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father.”

Stephen Williams

Welcome Snow

Snow is not aways welcome.  I enjoy it when I am home; but when I was at Myrtle beach a few years ago to walk on the sand and enjoy some sunshine and the first snow in 20 years showed up, it was not welcome.  And when I visited Worms Head in Wales, one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, the unseasonal snow and sleet that forced us inside was not welcome.  

We had an unseasonably deep snow in Brownsville, Tennessee when I was in grade school.  I loved it.  We were out of school for at least two weeks and that started the day we were to go back after the Christmas break.  I liked it; but I am sure Dad didn’t.  The roof of the carport would have fallen except that he stood up two by fours to keep it standing.  It drooped and bent and leaked when the snow melted.  It was unwelcome.  

Israel is one of those places where it can rain and snow at the same time.  Mount Hermon is snow caped.  When the Israelites in biblical times looked at the snow they saw something other than inconvenience.  They saw seeds.  In those days if the rains did not come and the streams were not rich with runoff from the snow caps, crops would fail and food would be sparse.  The worst was that there would no seeds for the next season and this would mean famine.  Snow was welcome.

“For just as rain and snow fall from heaven and do not return there without saturating the earth and making it germinate and sprout, and providing seed to sow and food to eat, so my word that comes from my mouth will not return to me empty, but it will accomplish what I please and will prosper in what I send it to do.” Isaiah 55:10-11 CSB

God keeps his word and he has all the necessary resources to do that.  His word is reliable.  Rain will wet the soil and replenish the water table.   Snow will soak the ground with the moisture that is necessary for life.  You can rely on that.  

In the same way, the Word of God supplies and nourishes a healthy heart and soul for all the days we live.  You can take the promises in the Bible as a reliable source for the wisdom necessary for you to flourish.  Welcome these words.  Seek them like silver and search for them like hidden treasure (Proverbs 2:4); for the words of God are more beautiful than snow.  “Get wisdom — how much better it is than gold! And get understanding — it is preferable to silver” (Proverbs 16:16).  The words in the Bible are beautiful.  Their beauty brings delight.  They are delightful as the first snow fall that covers the ground.  They are as delightful as the following spring green grass and yellow flowers.  Welcome them into your home, into your schedule, and into your heart.  It will nourish you with peace and joy through all the seasons of life.

“Wisdom is supreme — so get wisdom. And whatever else you get, get understanding. Cherish her, and she will exalt you; if you embrace her, she will honor you. She will place a garland of favor on your head; she will give you a crown of beauty.” Proverbs 4:7-9 

Stephen Williams

Berkeley

Ever since I first heard about him, I have been intrigued by George Berkeley.  He was a bishop of the Anglican Church and died in 1753.  Besides being a priest and perhaps because he was a priest, he believed a theory called immaterialism.  At first, I was just fascinated that anyone would deny the existence of the chair I’m sitting on.  Then I got into it a bit more and did some reading.  

Being a priest he was a proponent of creation by the Creator.  Stay with me.  The “indisputable” science of his day was that the universe was infinite.  The “indisputable” science today is that the universe had a distinct starting point.  It is funny how scientific speculation changes over time.  Science has followed the evidence to a position that more closely agrees with the Bible in so far as the universe had a distinct starting point (Genesis 1).  Being a priest, Berkeley had a vested interest in exploring a theory that undermined the inaccurate science of his day because that science undermined the truth about creation.  

Finally, my interest peeked as I reflected on Berkeley when it occurred to me that his belief in immaterialism was a statement of unusual faith.   Rather than believing the table I set my breakfast meal on is real, he believed that God created every experience he lived moment by moment in what I would call a spiritual reality.  You will be relieved to know that I think he was wrong about immaterialism; but I cannot help but admire that faith.  

I believe the floor beneath my feet is real and I believe that Genesis chapters one and two tell the story of God creating matter and then joining what is spiritual to it.  He breathed spiritual life as well as physical life into the first human being.  But I also aspire to believe that God wants to be creatively and intimately involved in all my life experience; and that this is how I should orient myself to my surroundings.  

Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For everything was created by him, in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities — all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and by him all things hold together. Colossians 1:15-17 CSB

So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.  Colossians 3:1-2

Stephen Williams 

What is Hidden Under Cover and High on a Rock

“For he will conceal me in his shelter in the day of adversity; he will hide me under the cover of his tent; he will set me high on a rock.” Psalm 27:5 CSB

One time my two sisters and I were playing hide and seek.  I had been waiting with excitement for the next time we would play for I had discovered the best hiding place you could imagine.  I was so confident that I would win the game I could barely conceal my joy.  “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, ready or not here I come!”  I buried myself under the dirty clothes in the laundry closet and lay as still as mouse.  I made sure they had given up before I revealed myself.  Actually they had already changed games to playing dolls or something else.

Psalm 27:5 could almost be a riddle.  What is hidden under cover and high on a rock?  As with riddles, the answer is not at all obvious.  The Psalm moves through two strong sentiments: seeking and confidence (The Message of Psalms by Michael Wilcox).  The two are not mutually exclusive in that when we face armies of opposition we hold a mixed bag of earnestly seeking God — because we have a clear view of the threat — and confidence in God because we have come to trust he is with us.  Remember how seeking and confidence were so intertwined in the story of Gideon (Judges 6-8).

The two metaphors that stand behind these statements express the nature of King David’s confidence as the shadow of war blanketed him.  The enemy ranks were all lined up and ready to fight.  The first metaphor could be stated this way: “Confidence in the Lord is hiding under his cover.”  The cover is the tent or tabernacle of the Lord.  The temple had not been built or it would say, “I am confident because I am in the temple” or more to the point since “in the temple” was a metaphor for “in the presence of the Lord; “confidence comes from being with God”.   Before we do battle a visit to the temple will bring confidence.  Confidence scatters any similitude of fright.    

Back to the riddle: “What is hidden under cover and high on a rock?”  The second metaphor, “Confidence in the Lord is being high on a rock” presents the image of holding the high ground and therefore being out of the reach of the enemy.  The enemy can clearly see the king, but is at the disadvantage.  David can rush down on them, but they cannot get up to him.  Confidence concerning the things that frighten us comes from knowing that God gives us the high ground.  

There is still a battle to be fought.  Blood will be spilled and some may lose their lives.  Only in Psalm 27:1 in the Old Testament is God called “my light” (UBS Handbook: Psalms).  Since God is the source of the light within me (my light), it cannot be put out.  It will burn as the source of my life-force beyond the use of my earthly body.  This is then something that mortal and earthly enemies cannot demolish.  They have no effective weapon to put this light out.  They can kill the body and still lose the war.  So there is no force or pestilence on this earth that can snuff out the eternal light within us.  This is why “the world is a perfectly safe place to be” (Dallas Willard, Life Without Lack).  

Jesus said, “Don’t fear those who kill the body but are not able to kill the soul….” (Matthew 10:28). 

Stephen Williams