Monday, October 13, 2014

Hell's Trophy

A man died today.  Slipping from this physicality of temperatures, aromas, humidity, pain, and sounds he left behind a shattered frame ravaged by disease and quietly slid into the essence of eternity. 

I knew this man, worked with him.  Before the disease exhausted his strength, rendering him unable to participate in the work he enjoyed, I shared many an hour with him.  It was the camaraderie of work he enjoyed, second only it seemed, to regular swearing.  Often my ears would cringe as he would animate in telling of some weekend excursion, some poolside conversation with a neighbor, or simply work related tasks - all enveloped with expletives for descriptive emphasis.

When referring to people, he would often preface with "that gaddamn (insert person's name)" in his suburban Chicago accent, not intending dislike or disdain in any fashion.  Rather, it was as if this were a proper part of their name.  Much more colorful descriptions were reserved for those he truly did dislike.  With him, what you saw was what you got whether you liked it or not.  If you didn't, you were free to leave.  I liked this man.  I liked his lack of false pretense and simple honesty of self.

I enjoyed the manner in which his face lit while sharing the details of his one and only daughter's wedding this past summer.  His love for her is immense.  I enjoyed the manner in which he cherished life, describing his slice of paradise - a home with a pool and expansive lawn and trees he relished.  His idea of a good day involved a pool raft and a beer with lawn mowers in the background.  I enjoyed the knowledge he shared that he was going to be a grandfather, his first grandchild due in nine months.  His smile was ear to ear.  My heart was full for him, hoping he would enjoy holding this newborn.

And now my heart is torn.  This man faded from the workforce not long after the above joyous revelation.  Through inquiries I learned he had taken a turn for the worse and was given approximately a year to set his affairs in order.  Then without warning, today, he was gone nearly eleven months shy of the physicians' estimation.  Gone.  No ambulance ride.  No hospice.  No intensive care.  Just gone.

The few conversations touching on faith that we did share did not leave me overly confident that this man had much use for an all powerful, all knowing God that loved him.  In fact I sensed quite the opposite as he regularly expressed himself in his particular and colorful way.  What I did sense was a desire to grasp the purpose of his sufferings, his challenges, and why this particular malady had stricken him.

And now I no longer have opportunity to converse with him and can only hope that he came to saving knowledge of our Savior prior to stepping forever into eternity.  But the doubt gnaws...what if?  What if this man did not?  What if somehow I failed to be and live Christ in this man's presence as fully as possible?  This man was ultimately responsible for his own destiny and future, but what if my life was the only gospel this man had access to and it was less than legible?  What if this man's soul is one more trophy claimed by hell, raised in an affront to a heartbroken Father who provided every grace, love, and possible sacrifice to save.

We are daily surrounded by these souls.  What should shake us to our core is that we will all have to give an account for not walking the gospel love of Christ out such that others take note.  Hording life in the face of death is a serious charge, yet so many claim a life giving faith while absently permitting an entire race to perish.  It is the Holy Spirit's to move the heart, but it is ours to be Christ present with hands and feet and when necessary voice.  Hell seeks to parade as many trophies of heaven's redemptive failure before the end of all things.  My co-worker may or may not be one of those trophies; I won't know for certain until I myself am before my maker.

Look at the person in the chair next to you, the guy in the cubicle across from you, down the hall from you, the woman at the desk you regularly stop by, even the student you regularly see.  Now see them as the prize Hell would covet and the cherished one a Savior laid himself to be nailed to a splintered beam for.  It is time for us to rise up, be the Church of love and grace that Christ called us to be and be the light to a dying world that is daily ushering thousands of trophies into Hell's eternity.  Ultimately it's why we're all still here.

"Go then and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."
Matthew 28:19

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

A Broken Vessel; A Broken Life

Picture the setting:  Jesus has been invited to dinner.  This, however, is not just another meal.  Jesus is invited to the home of a respected and important man in the community - a man that many seek association with.  He is a man with many friends and whom many desire to befriend or at least be seen.  His influence reaches deep from politics to business to matters of faith and all know his name.  He is a Pharisee, guardian of the Mosaic Law and scholar of the scriptures.  His name is Simon and he desires to dine with this carpenter of unremarkable demeanor from an unremarkable town whose name is being spoken throughout the region. 
Simon intends find out who this Y'shua is.  He is pleased the invitation has been accepted as this will prove, if nothing else, an interesting encounter.  Honored friends and leaders are assembled in his home, each searching a better grasp of the man rumored to be a teacher sent from God.  In this environment of food and entertainments, Jesus reclines to converse with his host.  Servants move in and among those gathered, conversation is engaged on numerous topics and in the commotion, a lone figure edges along the wall unseen and disregarded.
She is out of place here among the social elite.  In a room filled with those associated with the pursuit of God, she is filled with the regrets of a reprobate existence.  Innocence was cast aside long ago as choices became habits and worth evaporated with each abuse of self by herself and others.  She too is known in the community, though her prominence is of a different nature.  For this reason, she keeps to the shadows, hood drawn, head low, hair obscuring her face.  Her heart races as she nears the young teacher.  Nervous fingers rub the cool porous surface of the jar nearly causing it to slide from her trembling hand has she approaches from behind.  Sensing a presence, he turns as do others.  Immediately in their faces she notes shock, recognition, disdain.  What is she doing here?  Who let her in?  Nauseating regret begins to steal her strength, and causes her to doubt her actions.  Fear knots in her stomach and legs weaken as she glances from one stern face to another.  Then she looks at him and sees only
In his face, there is no scorn, there is no judgement.  Her knees give way at his feet and she begins to weep.  Raising her hands to her face she remembers the jar.
"One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to have dinner with him, so Jesus went to his home and sat down to eat.  When a certain immoral woman from that city heard he was eating there, she brought a beautiful alabaster jar filled with expensive perfume.  Then she knelt behind him at his feet, weeping. Her tears fell on his feet, and she wiped them off with her hair. Then she kept kissing his feet and putting perfume on them."
Luke 7:36-38 NLT
In a not too distant setting in a not too distant home he sits.  Again a meal is occurring.  Another man named Simon is the host and he too is known in his community.  This man, however is not a scholar, but rather a recipient.  Like Simon the Pharisee, this is a man of titles; titles that have gained him renown throughout his community.  This man previously carried a title that caused others to avoid his presence and give wide berth when walked through the streets.  Fading into the nothing, his life was erased as he was judged not by his actions, relationships, or his heritage, but solely upon one single factor that ultimately cast him out of contemporary society to walk in the land of the abandoned.   This man was formerly known as 'Simon the Leper', yet he is the recipient of God's restorative healing touch and is known as 'leper' no more.  He has been given a new title.  Now he is known as 'Simon, the walking evidence of God's grace and healing power'.
Jesus, surrounded by his disciples, enjoys fellowship and camaraderie with a man who seeks to honor the one who healed and brought a new lease on life.  One can imagine the mirth, one can picture the release of road weariness and a simple enjoyment of companionship as bread is broken, company is enjoyed, and good food and drink are relished.
Again a woman steps forth, alabaster in hand.  A room is silenced.  A vessel is broken.  A lamb is anointed.
"Meanwhile, Jesus was in Bethany at the home of Simon, a man who had previously had leprosy. While he was eating, a woman came in with a beautiful alabaster jar of expensive perfume made from essence of nard. She broke open the jar and poured the perfume over his head."
Mark 14:3
In both of these examples we see acts of brokenness.  One broke a vessel in an act of deep and costly sacrificial worship.  In the other we see an individual who was the broken vessel in an act of deep and costly worship.  Where one spent an enormous sum, a year's wages, on a small jar - probably all she had, another gave all she had of self in addition.  In both, we see our Savior's response - total acceptance in the reciprocation of love.  In no manner is there ever a comparative of worthiness to approach.  In fact, we see the opposite in effect as an individual morally corrupt and broken to desperation, undertakes a single act of beauty that outshines the gifts, the meals, the hosannas, and the cheers of the multitudes who regularly crowded around and followed Him as he tread this earth.
Yet, as is too often typical to the environment of the sanctified, devout, and the chaste these acts were met with harsh criticism - these women were met with judgement, critique of motive, doubt of sincerity. 
"If he were truly from God he would know who is touching him - he would know her story!"
"What a waste - a poor use of resources!"
"The money that could have been used to help the needy and the sick!"
"What we could have done for the Kingdom if they would have consulted us first!"
Do any of these still resound today?
Yet all of these rebukes were silenced by him.  Of those in the room who had the right or moral authority to sit in judgement over these offerings and the women who made them, it was he, yet his only rebuke was against those who sat in judgement.  Of the numerous individuals surrounding him in both scenarios - the individuals who touched his core, who truly drew his attention were two women with hearts broken and humbled before their Lord.
A naked encounter with this Savior still leaves one broken.  It destroys all defenses that cover the crumbling ruins of failed lives. The blinders are off and we see the futility of our strivings for peace, strivings for security, happiness, strivings for worth. We see the tragedy that is humanity searching for purpose without its Creator. It is in this context, we are finally able to look past ourselves and see the nature of limitless love and life beyond this sphere that a Savior laid down his very own self to redeem us into. He allowed himself to be broken upon our sin and death so that we might be restored into his family - blameless before the Eternal Holy God forever. 
And He is not interested in bringing only the whole or the worthy into his family, those who have rarely if ever sidestepped.  There are no "deserving" and "undeserving" in the Kingdom of God for those who will receive him.  The truth is, Jesus never searches out the worthy or the perfected, he perfects and makes worthy those he searches out.  The author of Romans quotes Hosea stating:
"Hosea put it well:
I’ll call nobodies and make them somebodies;
I’ll call the unloved and make them beloved.
In the place where they yelled out, “You’re nobody!”
they’re calling you “God’s living children.”
Romans 9:25 MSG

And this message is being proclaimed throughout the planes of existence, throughout the heavens where angels soar to the hells where demons wail.  "God's living children!"  And we will forever be known as such.  We have been freed from ruin, despair, and eternal death to live in the light and grace of his works and love in our lives.  Further, we are privileged to share in his work in others' lives as we become living tools for the continued building of this ever-growing family.  He is not interested in accomplishments, or boasts of numbers and weekly figures.  He is interested in encounters, relationships, and life changing testimonies as hell is daily encroached by the transformation of lives through his contagious love - for he is called Love.

But to accomplish this, we must approach with a heart ready for transformation.  This doesn't readily occur when we're certain we have everything in place.  It is not complimentary to the state of self sufficiency that often is paired with our successes, when life is working in our favor and all is going "according to plan".  Rather, this often occurs in our dark hours, in the valleys, forests, and storms of our lives when we are fully exposed and searching his heart, his direction.  It is here we approach in greatest humility, seeking nothing but his will for our lives.  And in this state, he can most effectively take us to greatest heights, achieve greatest purpose, enter into deepest relationship - but not before we are willing to become a broken vessel; not before we are willing to offer a broken life.


Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Raising the Blade

It hit me like a wave of despair.  I was learning of events that were terrible and tragic, events that I wished nothing to do with.  On the surface this seems a tremendously selfish and awful statement.   Yet to embroil myself, to entangle our family would be to jeopardize a peace and a final sense of well-being that we had sore been missing - a tranquility that had been eluding us for over five years.  My gut reaction:  to protect, to shelter, to screen my household from an unwelcome intrusion upon our safety and security.

God's blessings have recently overwhelmed us in remarkable fashion (see here).  This problem belonging to others, if embraced, threatened to upset the ordered and balanced state of our home for years to come.  My bride and I needed rest, needed a break.  Recent years have proven a grueling journey and of late I've been feeling like I've earned a respite, a bit of a time out on the sidelines to rejuvenate.  Further, the amazing blessing of our home has created a sanctuary for us that I have come to personally treasure.  For the first time in time unaccounted I long for no other place than with my children and bride in the presence of our home.  It has become my reprieve from a rapid paced world, my daily hiatus from external pressures and demands.  In my home I find rest and peace of mind.  Even in working around my home, my soul is refreshed.

And now the rumble of storm clouds on the horizon left me cringing for what might be...
I promised myself I would pray for those involved. 

His mind was reeling from the absurdity of it all, yet he knew with certainty what was being asked.  He knew the ageless voice that was asking.  All he could do was trust.  Trust in a God who had promised.  Trust in a God who had never failed.  Trust in a God who had spoken into the deep of his heart as he pondered the stars in the depths of their sanctuary.  Yet trust had limits didn't it?  Surely there was another way.  Yet none had been offered - simply the repeated command.  Sacrifice. 

He told the servants they would return, half hoping for the truth of this statement, half pleading silently for an alternate course.  Yet none had been given and the weight of what was required laid heavy upon him.

Gently he laid the bound child, the sticks and tender. 
"Daddy - it hurts!" his son cried.
"I know son - it will not last long."
Tears welled as he pondered the purity of innocence laying before him - the future that was going to be extinguished by his own hand.
His heart tore as he realized with finality there was no alternative - this was the price of relationship.
Covering his beloved boy's face Abraham raised the blade...

Picture yourself in the darkest of moments being called upon to perform such an act against your own beloved child - to extinguish the spark of life, the joy of your heart.  Often we've read this passage from Genesis 22 and often we've listened to the foreshadowing comparatives of Jesus, but place foot in shoe as the "father of faith" was taken to the edge of his by the Omniscient. 

A promise was given, but a future was asked of him.  Blessing was bestowed, but a life was required.  This passage shows that the One who blesses and promises is not interested in our short term comfort or our temporal pleasure at the cost of our eternal worth or effectiveness in His Kingdom.  This is a harsh reality that many will close hearts and minds to.  At times, I have.

How often have we made our homes, our habitats, our resting place, our escape in place of a Savior who has stated:

"Come to me all who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest."
Matt 11:28

Has our trust, our security become the calm of domus or faith in well constructed plans rather than the Rock upon which we build.

"You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you."
Isaiah 26:3

Then a whispered word levels all excuses and drives to repentance all who would withhold self for fear of intrusion into their balanced natural order:

"Do not withhold good from those who deserve it when it's in your power to help them. If you can help your neighbor now, don't say "come back tomorrow, and then I'll help you."
Proverbs 3:27 - 28

This passage is just a few verses under my bride's life verses of Proverbs 3:5 and 6:

"Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding;  in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight."

In our fear of the unknown future do we begin to trust in the provision, rather than in the one who provides?  In this state, a protecting of self, of status quo, of safe living is harboured in the heart.  In this state, we are less willing to recklessly love, to engage without restriction the damaged and broken around us.  Everything is going well, we state that we are "blessed", bills are paid, needs are met, plans are on course.  Our utopias seem to be in sync with God's provision and we couldn't be happier - yet we find we aren't really living sacrificially.  Shouldn't the question arise that a Lord who spared nothing of himself and ask the same of his followers,  a Lord who states "owe nothing but to love" but then defines love as "laying down your life" - doesn't this beg the comparative between His true intent and our relatively risk free existence? 

When we find ourselves in this state we, like Abraham, will very often find ourselves at a crossroads where sacrifice is spoken into our hearts and a decision must be made.  Will we willingly name Him Lord over everything in our lives and be content if He truly does require it to bring us into a deeper eternal walk with Him or will we draw back and hold onto our known versions of security, our temporal definitions of prosperity?  This is a question that each of us must put to test on some level in each of our lives for there will always be areas or people that we cherish above all - even sometimes above Him.  It is in those times that we may find ourselves called to ultimate sacrifice in order to step into deeper eternal relationship and growth.  When that time comes, will you be willing to raise the blade?

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Hidden Gems

Frustrated and feeling just a smidgen of despair I approached my bride with the bad news.  "The washer's broke".  "What's wrong with it?", she asked.  "The stator assembly mounting to the rotor harness is bad", I quoted from the online tutorial.  Neither of us knew what this meant.  What we did know was that we had a non-functional washer and the domestic handyman couldn't fix it. 

This would be bad news on any day but on a laundry day after unpacking with mountains of clothing that comprised the majority of our garments and being the major task item on our to-do-list for the day, this was unwelcome news of the highest order.  We both realized evening plans of an outdoor concert and fellowship with friends had just melted away before our eyes.  Our afternoon and evening, instead, would be comprised of an encounter with an old nemesis - the laundry mat.

I've never liked the laundry mat.  Early in our marriage before we could afford a washer and dryer the laundry mat was a weekly excursion to be endured.  The only thing bearable about it then was being with my young spouse and playing cards, eating Chinese food, etc.  In latter years, we visited seldom, for the same reasons we were doing so this day - equipment malfunction.  People generally seem unhappy at the laundry mat.  Concerns seem to weigh every person down as they are intently focused on a territorial game of Risk where the prize is to score adjacent rows of washers or dryers, or a prized area to fold clothing, a comfortable chair, or even a wheeled cart to empty their machine.  Dark gazes frequent the laundry mat and I find looking people in the eye usually yields a suspicious and quickly averted gaze.

Enter children.  Always an interesting variable as nothing tests a child's resolve for good behavior than waiting for hours in a hot room with nothing to do.  Thankfully we had an iPad for movies (oh to have had those when I was a child), Barbie dolls, and coloring books and prayed this would occupy.  We loaded the van to capacity with our baskets of clothing and set off.

Upon arriving we were fortunate to quickly find the machines we needed.  As we carried our clothes in I immediately took note of a man standing over the free coffee pot watching us.  Some people occasionally glanced up at the commotion of a family of five making multiple trips but this man gazed intently.  My bride found a corner with some seating for the children and got them settled as I helped her load machines.  It quickly became evident to me that there was something different about the man eyeing us.  He was about 15 feet from my children's seating area so I kept glancing back at them to make sure they were seated, behaving, and were safe. 

For children, one of the few fascinating things about a laundry mat is the number of slots in which you can place coins.  Machines everywhere will take your bills and convert them to coins.  Some will even convert larger denominations of coins to smaller ones.  Our daughter found this irresistible and kept getting up to ask us to help plug the machines.  After about four times of this I finally had to walk her back to her seat.

"IT'S GOOD FOR KIDS TO OBEY!" came a voice behind me.  I turned to face the man who had been eyeing us earlier.  "I CAN'T STOP AGING.  I'M 62.  IT'S GOOD FOR YOUR KIDS TO OBEY.  YOU'RE DOING SOMETHING RIGHT!"

I thanked the man.  As he spoke I noted spit would dribble down his stubbled chin onto his shirt.  He had an intense stare in his steel blue eyes but upon looking at him I could see less a threat and more a desire for interaction.  My bride came and sat next the kids and began to speak with him and for the next half an hour we conversed on everything from the mowing of lawns, which churches we attended, and repeatedly, the topic of aging.  Finally he introduced himself as "Joseph" and left us to cross the room to fold clothes.

Our own machines were finishing and as my bride and I went to empty them, we left the children playing on the iPad.  This drew the attention of a couple of other girls who soon had it in their hands.   I was a bit wary of this so I worked my way over and suggested they select a movie to watch.  One of the first selections was one that our littles are not permitted to see so I offered a different title and our eldest oversaw the equitable "voting" on which title was selected.

Within minutes a woman came up to us and began to apologize for her daughters.  She was concerned they had behaved poorly in trying to get our children to watch inappropriate material.  She was eloquent and sincerely troubled that we would be bothered by the intrusion.  She wanted to make sure her daughters were not a bad influence on our children and apologized if they were creating any problems.  We were taken aback.  We thanked her and assured her otherwise and were amazed at her gracefulness and candor.  My bride shared how grateful we were that they were here and how well behaved her daughters were.  She immediately beamed with pride.  My bride encouraged her to please let her daughters continue to watch with our children as they were enjoying their time together.  The woman's entire demeanor seemed to shift as she returned to her task at hand.

Shortly after the dryers began to finish and we had the serious task of folding ahead of us.  This was probably why there were so many stern faces because this was the work of the event.  My bride is a pro and she flew through the loads.  I clumsily attempted to keep pace as we sprawled our items across two tables and had multiple bins arranged in between.  We attempted to stay out of the way as much as possible but this is an impossibility in a laundry mat on a Saturday.  One woman squeezed past us to get to a dryer and we apologized.  At first she only smiled slightly but as she had to squeeze past again, and we apologized again, and then she had to squeeze past to get to the soap dispensers, and we apologized again - it became apparent we were going be performing this dance for the long haul. 

"At least you got you some good help!  Mine's off fishing."  Her face began to lighten.  "You hold on to that one!" she said to my bride with a crooked smile.

We were both amused.  In the dialogue that followed we learned that this young thin woman was actually getting married in only a week, was mother to five adult children, and was hurrying to get all of her laundry done so she could entertain house guests for the week ahead.  Wedding details were discussed and she beamed with pride as she relayed information about her children and her family.

"I'm hidin' the towels or my own kids'll come over and use'em all up before my relatives arrive.  Make'm do their own laundry - that's what I say!"  We were growing to like this woman immensely with her infectious smile.  It was evident that though we knew very little of her, she had walked a life with difficulties and prevailed a bit rough and toughened for it, but honest - speaking her mind into every situation. 

As we finished folding our items, putting the last of them into our baskets and collecting our items.  We said goodbye to our new acquaintance and congratulated her.  But before we could get out of the door, "Joseph" approached again.  "I NEED TO KNOW, DO YOU KNOW JESUS?"  We expressed that we certainly did which brought a look of relief to his face.  He told us again that he would be mowing tomorrow and said goodbye. 

We left that place filled with an enjoyment and thankfulness for the hours we had just spent.  In a circumstance that should have brought despair, drudgery and aggravation we had somehow been able to delight in people.  For me, the key was following my bride's lead as she simply showed grace and love to those either not looking for or not expecting either.

A man with spit running down his chin that most everyone in the building was attempting to avoid, became our friend Joseph - who in the end, came back to make sure we knew Jesus before he left.

A woman, concerned for the behavior of her children, able to relax for a period of time and take pride that she was raising them to behave properly and to let them enjoy themselves.

Another woman, able to share her joys and offer her wisdom to strangers without judgement or repercussion, without criticism and able to break from life long enough to share family and laugh.

These are the people God brings into our path daily when we are willing to walk out his love and grace towards others regardless the circumstances circulating our lives.  I have no doubt each meeting that day was a divine appointment, for reasons I cannot guess - possibly if nothing else than to teach that when we are open to walking in our Savior's footsteps, when we are willing to serve as he served, lay our selves down as he did, and love as he loved, - when we are willing to extend grace to the one with grim face or furrowed brow instead of mirroring a similar countenance, it is then that we discover we are surrounded by opportunities to be Christ to a desperate world. 

And these opportunities are the hidden gems worth searching for.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

When "Thank You" Isn't Enough

Have you ever been overwhelmed by gratitude?  Have you ever been gifted with something so remarkable you could find no words to thank the giver(s)?  Have you ever been accorded favor or grace so overwhelming that it was beyond your reasoning to imagine how to repay in kind? 

Many who know our family can well imagine this is precisely where we are currently walking and they would be right.  (For those unfamiliar, click here.)The grace, love, and overwhelming kindness recently shown is staggering to our minds.  Our senses are still daily reeling from the effort exerted to repair issues of varying severity to the structure and safety of our home.  These repairs have restored health, serenity, and redefined our future in ways we could not have previously foreseen; casting aside our limited scope of planning and enlarging the potential of this home's effectiveness as the ministry tool we have always viewed it to be.  But in this, I am struggling.  I am struggling with self.

This blessing of incalculable magnitude has placed us in unfamiliar territory.   Very simply, we are the recipients of the surrounding love and grace of others for no other reason than to be the body of Christ to us.  Many who were friends and acquaintances overwhelmed us with their generosity.  Many did not know us personally and many did not even know our names, but they came and gave of their time, efforts, resources, and the sweat of their brow to serve this family.  Where we would gladly leap at the opportunity to help others, we suddenly found ourselves facing a tidal wave of outreach that seemed unreal and improbable.

This is not a statement of preferred, isolation,  bravado, or a cavalier "John Wayne" manner of living that was sought out.  Very simply, our path and our journey as we have endeavored to pursue God's calling on our lives has often led us into unfamiliar and often very lonely territories.  Our constant was our God and his promise to never leave or forsake.  People often have, but He held us firm.  Family, both biological and church, have walked away.  Friends have distanced, but our Lord has always been close, always been faithful, always provided our needs through the deepest of valleys, always been faithful to his word.  A sole reliance on God and self develops in this environment and as compassion is studied and taken to heart, a lifestyle of seeking to serve others would rarely if ever expect others to reciprocate, let alone envelope in grace and love. 

And now my foundations have been shaken.  I desire to look each and every individual in the eye that had anything to do with the blessings that overwhelmed us and whole heartedly thank them.  But this doesn't seem enough.  The previously mentioned self-reliance in me wants to reciprocate to each of them, pay back in full and show my deepest appreciation by doing in kind what each has done for me.  Yet I am left with the reality that this is an impossibility.  My early mornings find me enjoying a newly defined resting area perfected for meditation on the Word and prayer.  Upon returning home from work, I find myself stepping into a work of love and grace and defined order.  An entire ocean of gratitude seems insufficient....In fact, I've been wrestling deeply with the subjects of gratitude and grace ever since.

It is here that God gave me the following;  Would any of us try to pay Jesus back for the gift of salvation?  Could any of us attempt to reciprocate to God for giving eternal life?  Do we truly understand the depth or the magnitude of this greatest of offerings of all time?  If so, should not thanksgiving continually be on our lips?  Yet picture the absurdity of any of us struggling with the guilt of "not being able to pay God back".  Here we begin to recognize the very definition of grace as defined in Ephesians.

He did this that He might clearly demonstrate through the ages to come the immeasurable, limitless, surpassing riches of His free grace; His unmerited favor in His kindness and goodness of heart toward us in Christ Jesus.  For it is by free grace, God’s unmerited favor, that you are saved, delivered from judgment and made partakers of Christ’s salvation, through [your] faith. And this salvation is not of yourselves, of your own doing, it came not through your own striving, but it is the gift of God;
Ephesians 2:7,8

God's relationship with us is not defined by our ability to thank him or repay him for his works in our lives.  Yet how often do we define our relationships with each other in this manner if we are truly honest?  I can honestly say I have may not have shied away from others based on their needs or the cost to myself, but I have on occasion based upon my own needs and my potential liability for indebted gratitude to others.  And yet we all are admonished

"Owe nothing to anyone—except for your obligation to love one another. If you love your neighbor, you will fulfill the requirements of God’s law."
Romans 13:8 NLT

And this love moves to action towards its neighbor.  It causes a family to abandon the comforts of this American existence to minister in Guatemala.  It moves hearts to partner with families on a Swazi mountainside to bring healing, education, and (most importantly) the Word of God.  It partners with and supports those pursuing God's calling to minister to the fatherless and the orphan.  It even rebuilt the home of this family, but more importantly rebuilt our hearts. 

No mere verbalization can encapsulate it.  It is action in motion and requires likewise.  The problem with the traditional view of gratitude in general is that we very often view it as a static or one time occurrence.  When there is no chance of ever being able to repay the giver however, when grace occurs in such overwhelming magnitude that we are unable to barter for reciprocation, we are compelled to something greater.  We are driven to live for something beyond ourselves. 

We will all spend the oceans of eternity either acknowledging through praise and thanksgiving the worthiness and indescribable splendor of our God or lamenting our refusal to do so.  What this blessing has taught me is that sometimes living beyond yourself to search out grace and love towards others is the greatest praise to a mighty God when "thank you" isn't enough.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

A Son's Anger

Anger.  For me this has always seemed a negative emotion, primarily because of the negative actions I've engaged in while feeling it.  I come from genetic stock blessed with the "short fuse".  I am told both of my grandfathers had fierce tempers though I never truly witnessed this.  I can name a few relatives who exhibit this trait and I seem to have been blessed with the challenge to "Simma-dahn-na" from time to time when things aren't going my way as well.  Given this predisposition, anger always seemed a force to combat and not necessarily an ally.

I am just learning in my life that anger is actually a healthy emotion.  It's what you do with it that determines whether it is harmful or not.  Anger can be a protective response for self and others.  Come against my family to harm them and anger will arise.  In recent years, I've even developed somewhat of a protective anger response towards injustices and actions against the helpless or hopeless.  I now feel I am also beginning to understand the seemingly paradoxical Biblical axiom "in your anger, do not sin".  That one has challenged me for years where we read of a God who can be angered but is also sinless.
And what of his son?  Ever picture an angry Jesus?  Have you ever pictured Jesus snapping while he tread this earth?  Certainly he came to minister but have you ever imagined him getting impatient or fed up with all of the complaining, the constant non-stop demands for his time, the "me-me-me" mentality of those who always seemed to be crowding him?  He was fully human after all.  And what about the dozen guys who were his elite?  After a couple of years wouldn't these guys have stopped bickering over "who's going to be greatest in the kingdom"?  Wouldn't they start to get a clue? 
And what about the unabashedly sinful and rebellious nature of the people everywhere he went?  Talk about a polluted merging of cultures.  Polytheistic Romans, dirty Samaritans, sexually liberated Greeks, heathens from every known nation trekking across his path, chasing him down.  Even among the chosen children of God, many didn't even try to hide the fact that they weren't really interested in doing much more than following some rote commands prescribed hundreds of years before.  But offer a show, a healing or some miracles, and they came in droves to witness the sensational.  This would have irritated many to the point that they might not have felt so generous to impart words of eternal life without some serious repentance at the forefront.
Have you ever noticed Jesus' ire was never raised towards the blatantly sinful or the obvious wrong-doer?
He was never harsh with those who were lost?  He wasn't even put off by their "in-your-face" lack of pedigree, manners, appreciation, or shamelessness.

In fact, one of the most powerful descriptions of him is simply this:

"The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth."
John 1:14 NIV

"...full of grace and truth."

If you could have one phrase on your tombstone, "full of grace and truth" would be pretty high praise.  The fact that of Jesus' many attributes "grace" and "truth" are so prominent is fascinating to me.  He could have appeared as "holy avenger, bearer of judgement and hellfire, come to set all things right".  There will certainly be a day where judgement does occur, but this isn't what he led in with.  Neither did he ignore the mired nature of the world in which he walked.  Grace and Truth fully defined him but truth is not truth if diluted, compromised, or falsified.  Our state did not change who he was, but neither did it repel him from us or keep us from approaching him based on his grace.

But Jesus was intolerant.  In reading the Gospels, some of the people I read he was most intolerant of were those who were most religiously intolerant of others - those who were from "proper" backgrounds and upbringing; those who were most strict in their observances of what was right and were put out that this self-proclaimed 'Son of God' would mix with and spend time with those who had made a mess of their lives through rebellion, bad choices, or being in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

When I see Jesus coming to blows, it wasn't towards a tax collecting thief, or a loose living woman.  It was against those who turned a sanctuary into a profit den, preying on those bowed under the weight of pious men's interpretations of God's commands.  When I see Jesus bristle, it isn't against a man who's wrestling to figure out how to hold onto his wealth and still enter the kingdom, it's against those who are seeking to hold onto their position and have no interest in the kingdom except for how to lord it over others and maintain their societal status.  I see a Savior weeping while overlooking a holy city, not because the temple wasn't grand enough or the priests weren't precise enough in their following of the Mosaic law, but rather because in the following of the law the people had stopped following the One who gave the law.  The masses milling through the dusty streets were broken, lost, and destitute of hope. 

Times haven't changed much between when Jesus walked the earth and today.  Our temples are certainly more numerous.  Our pedigree, our level of education, our affluence might be a bit higher.  But we all can probably picture the intolerant individual in our lives or our past who has done more to drive people from God then towards him with their judgements, rules, or regulations.  "Pharisee" we would call them, or "hypocrite".  The truth is we have probably all been those people at one point or another. 

Yet I repeatedly see the call in scripture to walk as our Savior walked, to love as our Savior loved, to serve as our Savior served.  I don't see his finger pointing at others in the gospels and saying "you better straighten up and change - you better get this right!".  I see him pointing to others and saying "these are my sheep - love them".  I don't see him demanding an apology before we can approach, I see him accepting us and telling us to accept each other (Romans 15:7).  I don't see him walking away from those who are difficult or unloving, I see him commanding us to walk in the ways of his love (Ephesians 5:2).  I don't see him exercising rightfully entitled position, I see him modeling the foundations of kingdom principles where to serve is the highest nobility (Philippians 2:5-8).  Certainly a call to accept him, to let him revolutionize lives is present - but so is the truth that there is nothing we can do can earn this free gift of salvation.  Nothing good about ourselves or our acts of piety or personal holiness have purchased our relationship with him - it's based solely on his grace, his sacrifice, his love.

Only towards those who would inhibit the broken, the abused, the cast down and the hurting from approaching the open arms of a Savior filled with grace and truth do I ever see a smolder in Jesus' eyes.  We should all take care never to forget we are all saved by grace and a costly love; that we are never in position of anything short of inexhaustible gratitude.  Those who do forget, those who harm "the least of these" in the name of righteous and moral fervor risk a Son's anger.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The King Who Bowed Low

To Bow.  Have you ever performed this act to another?  What does this mean to you?  For some it might conjure images of cultural greetings.  For others, pictures of heads of state as they extend handshakes and nod.  For others, a polite curtsy.  Ponder the significance of this peculiar act of deference.

The literal definition has many applications that we are all familiar with though we often do not associate many of them with modern necessity.  I cannot actually recall the last time, if ever, that I bowed to another human being other than to take a knee to my bride when I proposed to her.  For most of us, the physical act of bowing to a person rings of defeat and serfdom and this does not sit well.  Ponder the definition.

To bow is to show reverence, recognition, and acknowledgement.  To bow is to yield, or submit.  More in line with conflict, to bow is to be forced into a position of subjugation or even to be crushed.  We prefer the polite niceties of the first while obviously desiring to avoid the ramifications of the latter.  In fact, the whole of bowing should be left to social graces devoid of any depth of personal investment or cost to self.  Yet each of us could probably imagine a historical figure or two who was forced onto their knees by a conquering power to acknowledge supremacy.  This loss of control is probably what is most intimidating about the word, for to truly bow to another is to yield oneself to the temperament, preferences, and power of that individual.

In the case of many around us, we would often refuse this kind of submission unless deep trust had been established.  No one wants to fall backwards unless they know a network of interwoven arms is there to catch them.  But what of the powerful, the mighty, those imbued with seemingly everything necessary to charge forth and rule their world.  Do we ever picture the need for them to bow to others?  Do we ever see them brought low in subservience as a necessity for their position, their influence?  Historically I do not. 

Historically, I envision this to be the antithesis of the powerful.  Gazing upon those listed as great and mighty amongst the "conquerors" and "shapers" of history I see very few, if any, notes of those who created empires, shaped continents, and altered their times by yielding to the passions of others except in the name of self interest or personal appetites.  "Self serving" more characteristically defines the interests of these individuals.  Whether it be to etch a name for self or for nation in eternity, most who expanded empires, grew nations, conquered countries and dominated economies did so on their feet and rarely if ever bowed the knee. 

Everyone of them, though, shared this commonality; they each ultimately bowed to the pull of death's indomitable tug upon this flesh.  Ashes to ashes and dust to dust, each bowed as they stepped into eternity as we all must.  Many were acutely aware of this inevitability and strove to outlast their own lives in stone and deeds remembered.  Many disillusioned believed they were beyond the power of the grave and through mysticism and myth sought to outlive their peers through accomplishment.  All were brought low with finality; the works of their hands undone in the cessation of a heartbeat. 

Picture, however, a king not subject to this mandate.  Eternal, possessing of all true power.  This king was present when the stars were commanded to burst forth from the void, he witnessed the oceans roar forth from the deep places.  Lightning adorned his throne and creatures innumerable and indescribable existed simply to continually utter reverence and praise to his name.  Immortal, death could not touch this king, could not approach his presence.  This king truly need yield to no one for there was none more powerful, more deserving of absolute reverence and awe than he in all of the most divine or the most abominable planes in existence. 

This king, though, did something unthinkable and uncharacteristic of one imbued of royalty...he knelt.  He knelt in the filthy soil of a spoiled creation.  He knelt in the squalor those who rejected him.  With compassion, this king knelt and touched a blind man.  He reached for a cripple.  This king knelt and grasped a woman caught in adultery.  He embraced an embezzling tax cheat and clasped a leper.  This king cradled a dead girl and endured the scorn of mockers as he named her "sleeping". 

There were those who faintly grasped with whom they walked while this king tread our plane.  Their tainted knowledge led them to believe this king would rise up in might, overthrow usurping armies and establish an immediate eternal power.  They were perplexed when this king stripped himself near naked and proceeded to perform the lowliest of duties - the washing of their dusty, road-weary feet.

For this was the model of greatness in this king's eyes - the true wisdom of power that the mighty and powerful of this sphere have squandered centuries railing against in futility.  This king's kingdom is not built with the mighty, but with the broken.  It is not built by the powerful, but with the vulnerable.  This king's kingdom is not built by the wise of the earth, but by the helpless. 

We would argue these truths as ineffective and foolish for what progress can ever be made in any undertaking with such deficiencies.  Our misunderstanding stems from our own misguided understanding of our own importance in the tapestry of God's unfolding history where each of us is but a small thread.  The phrase "God plus me = everything" is true just as the phrase "infinity + zero= infinity" where we realize we are the sum zero in this equation and only through the grace of a loving and all powerful father have we been invited to participate in the most grand of redemptive stories in existence. 

But this was only possible as the king who knelt in our soil, walked in our flesh, and touched our diseases ultimately yielded himself, of his own accord, to bow low under the crushing weight of wooden beams; to be nailed to those same beams and to be elevated on a cross as a substitution for my filth and wrong doing so that I could approach a pure and holy God without blemish once and for all time.  He did this for me as he did this for all.  This is the king who bowed low and his call is for us to follow his example.


Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Burning Lens

Often in these writings, I am reminded that I am fall-able, tainted, and stumbling.  I've often stated that the intent and purpose for these writings are less a sharing of my soul with others than a documented trail of directional markers for self as I pursue the One who draws my next breath and blesses the daily efforts of my hands.  From time to time I witness a bringing forth of that which I deem ugly and undesirable.  In this I witness a purging of the dross, so that of value can be purified by the Refiner and an instrument of worth can be brought forth.

I witnessed a picture the other day and it stirred my heart to anger.  It was not of some terrible occurrence.  It was not of an abuse against innocents.  It was not even of a neglect or harm towards "the least of these".  In fact, it was not an injustice at all by normally defined parameters.  It was a photo another had posted of themselves enjoying the camaraderie and friendship of their church family.  It was a photo of christian people doing what christian people are supposed to do - fellowshipping.

Why would such a thing trouble my heart to dark emotion?  What could possibly be wrong in this scenario that would kindle that sinking burning fire deep in my chest?  The answer - for me this picture represented betrayal, hurt, and indignant arrogance.  Petty?  Certainly.  Justified?  Never.  Explanation?  Every story has one.

The individual in the photos was someone my bride and I had stood along side on several occasions when the enemy of our souls was doing his best to destroy them, both from outside and inside of the church.  When temptation was upon them to fall away we encouraged.  When condemning judgement was heavy upon them from within the body, we endeavored to show love.  Years later, when friends and family began to turn away and during the loneliest and most isolating period of our lives where the enemy beset us continually on every side for trying to do the will of the Father in orphan care and adoption - this individual was one of many who turned from us. 

In witnessing the photos I was looking at, I was not seeing "christian fellowship".  I had narrowed the lens and was scrutinizing betrayal.  I was focused in on arrogant piety as church events and involvements were advertised for all to take note.  I was fixated on righteous entitlement for the manner in which they flaunted the circles in which they now ran, the after-church-lunch-crowds they now socialized with.   Identity was advertised in affiliation and activities.  This lens brought upon me a deepening anger for I knew this one when they were destitute and even shunned by the church in judgement and I witnessed them rise up to become one central to the defamation of my household among family and friends.  It was apparent in the numerous photos that life was good and that they had found their niche.

I continued to sharpen the lens and saw an image fill it's circumference.  What I saw was truly revolting.  It was filled with an arrogant forgetfulness of where one once came from and where one once stood.  A smug vanity and boastfulness was evident upon the face.  Humility was lost for influence and achievement.  A sadness crept in and I had to divert as my heart grew overwhelmed; for the image was no longer of another - it was of myself.

I had stumbled upon a very simple universal constant;  The lens through which we gaze to scrutinize another will often magnify the ugliness of the darkness within. 

I was guilty in greater and lesser measure of nearly every one of the sins for which I was judging.  My indictments upon this person were no more just than their judgement upon me or mine upon you because this individual has never walked my path, I have not walked theirs, and neither of us can be responsible for what God is doing in each of our lives.  Hence the very plain and unmistakable command

Judge not, neither pronouncing judgment nor subjecting to censure, and you will not be judged; do not condemn and pronounce guilty, and you will not be condemned and pronounced guilty; acquit and forgive and release (give up resentment, let it drop), and you will be acquitted and forgiven and released.
Luke 6:37 AMP

My "right to wrath" was, at best, sin on my part and never justifiable as God has faithfully accompanied me through the worst storms of my life in recent years, protected and provided for my family, and performed according to His Word just as He always does.  He has restored multiple times over what was taken and lost and deepened our understanding of His love and grace towards us in the process.  However, in taking my eyes off of Him and placing them upon circumstances and others I can still erode my trust in the One who has promised to never leave us or forsake us and introduce a level of worry and concern upon my life and the outcomes and actions of others that God never desires for me or my family to carry.

Comparing the outcome of the fruit of another's life and my own is always a path fraught with snares regardless of personal history.  As Mark Twain put it "Comparison is the death of joy".  More potently Job 5:2 puts it this way:

Resentment kills a fool,
and envy slays the simple.

I am humbled as I continue and will ever continue to lap at this milk of the Word.  My mission, my family's mission, the church's mission is to love.  Plain and simple.  #1 God above all else.  #2 Your neighbor as yourself. 

Though this admonition has been repeated through the ages, it is profound in the fullness of its depth.  Where 1 Corinthians 13:13 states "the greatest of these is ____", unpacking this statement will require the length of eternity as we discover the God who is Love and who died to rescue not only each one of us, but also those we would turn our burning lenses upon.