Thursday, December 29, 2016

False Advertising

The new year quickly approaches and like many, I find myself amazed at the pace at which the current year is fading.  Memories play like a movie reel fast forwarding through the blur of events, places, people, and paths that comprised the journey that has been the past twelve months.  Reflection recounts joys but also brings into focus regrets, mis-steps, and stumbles.  Improvement becomes focal as the calendar roll is eminent and a deadline for "resolutions" looms.  We all have a picture of the ideal we desire to become, the person we fell short of.  Perhaps this is the year...


It was a beautiful autumn Saturday morning.  Crisp cool air laced with the welcome spice of dried leaves and ornamentals.  This mingled with the steam fuming from my coffee cup creating an intoxicating and perfect aroma lifting my spirits and elevating my senses.  The world was bright, colors were sharp and vivid, smells were distinct.  I was alive.


I happened to work for a large university.  Not only is she my employer, she is my Alma Mater - Class of '95.  This particular day I found myself walking between several buildings where I lived as a student and I was enjoying the brisk nature of the morning and the surroundings.  


Only one block away, the football stadium was loudly crooning announcements and the distinctions of former alumni, players, and honored guests over the loudspeakers.  I could hear the ensemble of a three hundred plus member band with their golden and silver instruments playing collegiate anthems to the cadence of heavy percussion; amongst all of this, a steadily growing murmur of an increasing crowd attendance in the sixty thousand seat coliseum that would host the approaching game. 


The contest was between two Big Ten Conference rivals.  Nature had lent a festive flair to the day as trees in their fall coloring were golden, auburn, crimson, and orange - all colors mimicking the apparel and jerseys that the fandom from both teams had donned this day as they trekked to the event.  People of all ages flocked by the tens and the hundreds towards the contest.  Police guarded street closures with Fort Knox intensity.  The music continued to swell and with it the masses of pedestrians en route.  This was the heart of collegiate pride and there was no escaping the energy in the air.  I too felt a swell of pride as the bands played, the crowds roared, and the flags displaying my Alma Mater's colors waved. 


Caught up in the moment it dawned on me...


I was proud to be an alumni.


To most this seems a simple and unimpressive statement.


I mentioned previously that I graduated years ago from this esteemed institution.  In my field of study, I worked very hard.  My particular curriculum was not geared for the party crowd.  The sophomore year was known as the "weed-out" year where those who couldn't make a regular habit of staying up into the middle of the night working on their assignments quickly found themselves behind and unable to continue with this field of study.  I managed to get through the weed-out phase, form the necessary bonds with my classmates who were in like deep waters and worked hard to cross a stage and have a distinguished emeritus hand me my diploma.


And then...


I worked several part time jobs for almost a year before finally obtaining full time work.  My first day I held a sledge hammer for eight hours.  Later that summer I found myself in muddy trenches, shoveling gravel, smoothing hot asphalt, and a number of other tasks that were about as far from my field of study as I could imagine.  Being newly married, the realities of family and finance became far more critical than my ego.  Post baccalaureate degrees were put on hold as I wrestled with self and tried to sift through pipe dreams to find attainable goals. 


My education benefited me in that I found a new passion for planning on the urban scale and soon found myself involved with regional and urban planning projects, landscaping, arboriculture, and the like.  But always in the back of my mind was the notion that I had mis-stepped, jumped ship, that I had somehow failed at what I set out to do when I entered college.


Then I was blessed to obtain a position at the very university from which I graduated, to work in some of the very halls that I traversed as a student.  Joyfully I took this opportunity.  Immediately I was drawn into yesteryear as I could regularly smell familiar smells, hear familiar sounds.  I was constantly surrounded by memories in physical form.  Yet they did little to calm the sense of disquiet I continually felt about the loss of those passions that had driven me to work so hard to achieve the diploma; to be counted among the "alumni".


In fact, I began to disassociate from this title.  I did not want others to know that I had graduated from here.  I did not want them to know that I had failed so spectacularly in doing what I had set out to do, that my path had altered so drastically from its intended direction.  My identity and sense of worth were so enmeshed with my plans, and an ideal of success that had been programmed in during my education.  And now on this beautiful day, among the pomp and pageantry of a collegiate homecoming I found myself proud to be an alumni for the first time in nearly two decades.


Looking around I was surrounded by scores of students, all bright young minds in celebration of vitality.  Their life's goals ahead of them.  Their futures uncertain but hopeful.  They are all working to take the world by storm.  When does it start?  For many of them, in their minds, it starts when they earn this same title "alumni". 


I noted the middle aged and older sect.  Droves of these were in motion.  It was evident that most of them were advertising their affiliation with the institution that made their livelihood possible and to which they associated memories of vigor, youth, and passion.  "Alumni" was embroidered on dozens upon dozens of sweaters, ball caps, and shirts. 


All of these took stock in something that I had hidden from for years because my track did not go according to plan, took a left when I anticipated a right.  This title, this phrase gives me no more value or worth than any other human.  It does represent work, toil, even sweat of brow.  It represents sacrifice and even some loss.  Ultimately, it represents achievement and I have ignored these facts, down played them, and chosen instead to wear the label "FAILED".  Why? Because long ago I sold myself a picture of what it would look like to be a success in my own life.  This picture was incomplete.  I barely knew my wife to be, my children weren't even a notion in my mind, I had no concept of the challenges ahead of me, but this picture of success was concrete.


Then life happened.  Forks in the road happened.  Storms happened.  Choices had to be made.  Decisions were rendered.  Pipe dreams evaporated.  Life required focus.  But something else also happened.  Growth.  I am not remotely the same person who formulated the picture of success I was then.  But I still was judging myself by this concrete inflexible notion of what life should have been and when it didn't match my reality the perceived deficit left me feeling apologetic to the world at large.  "I'm sorry you should know I'm not everything you think I am." was the subtext silently projected into every encounter, to every friendship, into every task.  This immediately puts one at a deficit in their sense of self confidence, self worth, and their sense of capabilities.  I was not only buying this, I was selling it to others as well.  And it was false advertising.


Sounds ridiculous, doesn't it?


How many would identify?  How many, during this time of approaching "new beginnings" are already focusing on their resolutions, their list of deficiencies that need changing?  Improvement is desirable.  We should all periodically take stock of areas to improve upon.  But how many have bought into the never ending notion that they are something less-than based upon a perception of failure or a track record of marks missed? 


And what does the Creator of all who knows your last breath from your first have to say about you, your life, your mis-steps and the forks in your roads?


You have been purchased with a price.  1 Corinthians 6:20


You are chosen and hand-picked by Him.  2 Thessalonians 2:13


You are dearly loved.  Colossians 3:12


You are His treasured possession.  Deuteronomy 26:18


You are beautiful.  Ecclesiastes 3:11


You have been created in His very image.  Genesis 1:27


You are the work of His hand.  Isaiah 64:8


You are forgiven.  Hebrews 8:12


You are His beloved.  John 1:12


You have been crowned with love and compassion.  Psalm 103:4


You are heir to His Throne.  Romans 8:17


He doesn't mislead.  He doesn't sell a bill of goods that is deceptive.  In fact, it's impossible for him to call anything by any name but exactly what it is - in full disclosure of the truth.  There is another, however, who whispers in our ears and convinces that we are inadequate to receive grace, forgiveness, and love.  He reasons that we are not responsible to extend these to others either.  And when we listen, we buy into a false narrative, we purchase a faulty product without a return policy.  To whom will you listen?


2017 is here.  I have my list of resolutions.  Many will write their own.  Fitness club memberships will temporarily swell, soda sales will taper, and affirmations will renew.  As for me, I'm buying into something solid - I'm no longer listening to false advertising. 

















Thursday, December 22, 2016

A Christmas Desolation

It's Christmas time.  The city twinkles festively.  Stores are decorated extravagantly with caricatures from childhood cartoon favorites.  Lights illuminate goods that simply cannot be lived without.  Crowds amass in mall and on sidewalk alike.  The cold has driven many to don scarf, mitten, hood and boot.  Small eyes twinkle.  Rosy cheeks and ruddy faces brave arctic air masses in search of food, sights, and shopping.  Evergreens resplendent in bulbs and lights are everywhere. Angels adorn buildings both commercial and holy.  Even the traffic seem to answer the yule call as braking automobiles create rivers of illuminate red heralded by the rotational patterns of corner stop lights.


It's Christmas time.  His eyes burn red with tears long spent.  Where joy should be welling from within, he feels nothing but the weight of a heavy and worn heart.  Long ago he burned through the emotions of envy, anger, and pride.  Now, only emptiness remains.  Unemployment has been hard.  With young children and debt accrued, his bride and he have done everything they know to get on their feet, to offset the financial tidal wave crashing down on them in the last year.  But it was not enough.  Sickness came and with it, additional expense from already depleted resources.  Now, during the holidays, he watches as other families hurried from store to store.  He witnesses others enjoying festivities that he knows he can't provide for his children.


He knows the season is about far more than gifts and trinkets, it is about a baby in a manger.  And yet, he knows that on that morning his dread at not being able provide those few items his children wished for, those few small gifts that didn't even cost that much, will overwhelm his joy.  He has failed his family, failed his bride.  They couldn't even make cookies or treats.  Eyes begin to burn again as his throat knots in the knowledge that he is powerless to become the hero he so longs to be at Christmas.


It's Christmas time.  She is tired.  Tired of the lewd remarks.  Tired of the eyes that follow her back and forth from the counter.  She is tired of having to work so much to make ends meet.  A single mother of four with no support from the father.  She loves her children, but honestly there are days she wishes she could just run away from it all.  Her mother helps with childcare while she holds down her jobs.  She is attractive but burning the candle at all ends is taking its toll.  Permanent lines are prematurely etching around her tired young eyes.  She does her best to bring holiday cheer to the kids, but when there seems no light at the end of the tunnel, it's difficult to be the light in your own home. 


High school friends have long since either gone on to their own families or left for college and lives of their own.  She is still here, working a factory by day, waitressing at night, and cleaning on the weekends.  Her dreams and hopes are a distant memory, like a good novel once read and then put away.  Reality of life now enforces her daily existence.  She had hoped the holidays would lift her spirits, but in fact she now feels more alone, more isolated than ever...and tired, so very tired.  If it weren't for the love of her children, it would be so easy to just not exist...


It's Christmas time.  That's what they told him.  He doesn't really know what day it is most of the time.  Sundays.  He can sometimes keep track of Sundays.  That's when the liquor stores won't open early.  He tries to make sure he has what's needed to avoid that dilemma.  Christmas?  Just another day.  A lot of pretty lights though.  He likes the lights - just wished they gave off some warmth.  It's always cold at Christmas and the shelters don't always have beds. 


He remembered one of the best Christmases was when that one church, what was it called...?  Anyway, that one church came and brought the Christmas meal with the ham and the turkey and the stuffing and the coffee and pie.  They even gave out coats and gloves!  That was a Christmas - reminded him of being a kid.  He remembered that night sitting on the park bench with his bottle warming his insides as he looked at the beautiful lights on top another nearby steeple.   The steeple church was always pretty but he never really felt comfortable near it.  Too many suits.  People always looked away from you there.  Pretty much invisible when you walked by.  For all of that pretty stone, glass, and lights, seemed a real waste for the people not to be beautiful on the inside too.


It's Christmas time.  Most of us will daily enter a home filled with warmth, love, and holiday d├ęcor.  For some, we have the joy of watching the anticipation of children build daily as the holiday approaches.  For others, loved ones will gather with us to celebrate the most grand gift ever given in all of creation.  For some, however, this is not a holiday of joy, of cheer or goodwill as so many of our carols and hymns denote.  It is a holiday that underscores loss, bareness, and devastation.  While a world celebrates, a quiet few mourn. 


It is in this ruin that those who profess Christ have a calling to reach into forlornness with a message of love and hope just as the angels did two millennia ago


I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.
Luke 2:10-11


There will be people specifically and purposefully placed to intersect with your perfect noel this season.  They may be people who have a smile but are silently counting the days until December 26th, hoping to move past this time.  Should they be difficult to recognize, it is only right that we seek discernment to find them because it is for this reason that a baby was born.  It is for this reason that a son was given.  To bring hope and love.


Hope in Word.  Love in action.  Only these can heal a Christmas desolation.  It is our calling, no more so than now.  This is truly what the gift is all about.







Monday, September 26, 2016

A Trophy Unmerited

A racetrack.  High performance motors shrouded within thin steel skins decorated with everything from rattle-can spray paint to professional decals indicating thousands of dollars of sponsorship.  Protective roll cages defining form and aerodynamics as engines roared and lurched to be unleashed.  Within the narrow slits that were "windows", helmeted drivers gripped wheels with gloved hands as they steered into predetermined starting positions. 


This was a dirt racing track, and with every passing of the column of roaring beasts, familiar chemical fumes merged with present cigarette smoke as many spectators emulated the exhausting of burning by-products with the same proficiency as the motors churning on the track below.  Smoking engines.  Smoking people.  Dust churning.  Excitement building. 


The announcer relayed vital statistics and race information that was uselessly drowned out into a Miss Othmar muffle by the passing machinery as speakers could hardly complete with the decibel output of performance engines.  Barely audible was the fact that the lead driver in the pole position was undefeated.  As such a "bounty" had been placed up on him.  The driver who could beat him would earn extra prizes.  This had been going on for several races in a row and the bounty continued to grow with each race.  Yet this champion remained unbeaten.   The crowd cheered in anticipation of this new weight added to the contest ahead.


The caution light was removed indicating the race was set.  A final lap and the green flag was expertly waved for all to see as horsepower was unleashed thrusting cars and drivers forward in rapid acceleration.  As with all dirt tracks, winning is not in the straight-aways, but in the turns.  Cars jockey for position for proper turning advantage as they dip or rise into the turns at high velocity.  Sliding through the turn they sling-shot out of them to surge forward, correcting for the loose surfacing slide, seeking to out maneuver briefly before engaging the next turn. 


Not long into the contest a single mistake yields a gasp and many exclamations from the spectators as one decision yields consequences for many.  Vehicles collide, spin-out, and come to a rest.  The yellow flag is thrown and caution lights burn.  Those who avoided the pile-up slow to a crawl, resetting their positions as they were prior to the accident.  Tow trucks race onto the field to extricate twisted frames and pull apart steel and machinery.  Those that are able realign their vehicles to continue the race with scraped and mangled sheet steel torn and missing but frames and engines intact.  Those less fortunate are pulled off of the field to become spectators themselves. 


Again, the motorcade is realigned based on position prior to the commotion.  Yellow disappears and green is thrown.  Again, engines roar to life thrusting steel and drivers forward in clouds of dust and fume.  Above the din can barely be heard the inarticulate announcements of the commentator as he recounts positioning, driver information, and point totals. 


Finally the race nears its ending, the white flag is waved, indicating one final lap remaining.  The champion has held the lead the entire race, staving off two eager competitors attempting to snatch victory.  Turn one, straight away, turn two, straight away, he surges forward increasing distance.  Turn three he expertly steers into the slide, preparing for turn four.  Finally the home stretch and the win.  A champion he remains in a contest that it seems he cannot lose.  A victory lap is taken.  The spectators are on their feet cheering as he drives past, finally coming to rest at the starting line as the other racing machines exit the field. 


The driver crawls out of the window of his machine, taking his helmet off tossing it into car.  Where one might imagine a fierce man of competition, present is a simple man who simply loves the sport he has just competed in.  The announcer puts a microphone up to his face and begins a cursory line of questioning about his feelings on the win, his machine, and his plans.  With humility the man attributes the win to the machine, good fortune, and thanks the other competitors indicating it could have easily been any one of them standing there before the announcer.  A large trophy is then handed to the man and he holds it aloft.  Then he does something unexpected.


Several children of varying ages have gathered in the grand stands near an entrance gate that grants access to the field.  The champion driver, trophy in hand, walks over to the gate as the children clamor for his attention, shouting his name.  He looks them over and then points to a small boy, no more than eight years of age.  Opening the gate, the man hands the boy the trophy, says a brief word and then turns to walk back to the machine that brought him victory.  The other children begin to melt away but the boy holding the trophy is now holding victory.  The prize almost as tall as he is, he makes his way back into the stands to parents waiting with a smile that seems permanently etched on his young face.  This boy is now the champion.


I was privileged to witness the above recently and was immediately drawn to the parallel that I too have been given a gift  that I never actually deserved by one who fought and won a race of much more cosmic and eternal consequence.  Like the driver above, my Champion was undefeated, unparalleled and could not be touched.  A bounty was also placed upon his head and yet he still completed the race before him in stunning victory and then he did something completely unexpected to all who witnessed.  He handed me the trophy. 


We struggle and clamor for so many trophies, prizes, and rewards when many of us know what his Word has this to say on the matter:


Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Matthew 6:19-21


He gave us unmerited favor, unmerited love, unmerited grace, unmerited life.  He gave us the trophy unmerited.  He simply asks that we follow after his example and do likewise for others.  What does this look like?  It is the treasure that does not rust, it is the building up of others, the reaching for the hurting, the compassionate hand, the listening ear in the silence.  The one commonality each of us share is that everyone of us are broken and ruined humans.  When we learn to be broken and ruined for Him, he can use this to affect masses. 


And like the child I witnessed infused with self-worth and joy, we can be instrumental in infusing His life and joy, His purpose into others when we are willing to share this trophy unmerited.





Thursday, September 15, 2016

Special Needs

"Special Needs".
The phrase hits a raw spot with people.  It either makes them shift somewhat uncomfortably as they would rather steer conversation in a different direction or it strikes to the core of life experiences of parents, children, or loved ones who have lived the fullness of its challenges out. 

For me it does both. 

I find that I fully embrace the fact that special needs entered our lives in the form of adoption and foster care.  I am thankful that where I might have once shied away from the topic I now daily live it to the point I don't even recognize it.  In fact the phrase has a somewhat jarring effect on my psyche as I have to be reminded that I have a son that is deemed special needs.  To me, he is amazing.  He has challenges, he has issues, he has problems.  But I haven't run into a child, or an adult for that matter, who doesn't.  You just have to get past the facade on some a little more than others to see them. 


There are phrases that I grew up with that might have once been used to describe my son.  I hate those phrases.  They still exist and are still used in conversations by well meaning people with innocent intentions.  When inappropriately used or applied the words can be demeaning and vicious and strike a nerve with those of us who have children with challenges.


But the term special needs is deemed much more polite, more palatable.  Again, it jars my ears to hear it applied to my own as I often forget I deal with a special needs child daily.  The labels are an irritant to me.  When I look at him I don't see special needs.  I see life.  I see joy.  He is funny.  He is opinionated.  He is intelligent, and clever.  He takes a different route to get to the same ending but he gets there, often better than most.  But most importantly, I see my son.


In these writings, I recently referenced a little girl that I met not too long ago in an international adoption program who was deemed special needs.  In that particular post entitled Behind the Eyes, I recounted my sadness that her particular issues were enough to turn people away from the prospect of even considering her for adoption.  Like my son, she has challenges.  Like my son, she is amazing, has a fascinating personality and intellect.  And like my son, she has good days and she has bad days.


Each one of us can picture at least one or several individuals, child or adult, who fit into the category special needs.  Ponder for a moment what challenges placed them in that category.  Is it cognitive?  Is it physical?  Is it emotional?  Regardless of the answer, the same truth permeates throughout - not one of them had a choice in the matter.  Not a single one.


Not one chose speech difficulty.  Not one chose cognitive delay.  Not one purposed to be physically challenged.  Yet at some point in their lives, each and every one of them will be judged for their challenges, put on trial in someone else's mind for their difficulties.  Sounds unfair doesn't it?  In fact, it sounds somewhat horrific.  But haven't we each done something similar at some point or other?  I know I have.


Do not judge and criticize and condemn others unfairly with an attitude of self-righteous superiority as though assuming the office of a judge, so that you will not be judged unfairly. For just as you hypocritically judge others when you are sinful and unrepentant, so will you be judged; and in accordance with your standard of measure used to pass out judgment, judgment will be measured to you.
Matthew 7:1-2 AMP


We are all special needs when it comes down to it.  As stated above, some of us have better facades than others, but at the core we're all deficient, incomplete people who need help.  We were born this way.  It wasn't our choice.  We couldn't help it.  We still can't.  We were born into a sin infested world with sin all over us and we all still get tripped up by it.  That's not a free pass for bad choices - it's a fact that keeps all of us from perfection this side of eternity.  Everyone of us will screw up, step on someone, hurt the ones we love, and ultimately get it wrong at some point. 


That is where grace, forgiveness, and love are so, so, necessary - a lifeline in a sea of hopelessness.  Covering every spiritual deficiency, the cross put each of us in right standing.  Were we to be judged for the condition we were born into, not one of us would survive the outcome, yet because of the ultimate sacrifice of love each one of us can now know the perfect love of a Father who turned creation on its head to redeem and heal us from that state. 


That is also why scriptures such as the one above carry so much weight.  Given that the only truly pure and perfect being in existence up heaved the heavens and hells by this sacrifice to redeem his beloved, there is no room at this table for us to look at a single other person in judgment.  No room to point out the deficiencies of others, no room to point out another's weaknesses or rail against another's flaws.  For every grace and sacrifice has been extended to each of us.  We are, therefore, to extend likewise because we have no right to do anything other.  To point out another's deficiencies in judgment is to ignore the fact that we will all ultimately have our own deficiencies judged with the same measure we judge, criticize, and condemn others. 


This is where we all have a special need
 - for mercy
 - for grace
 - for compassion
 - for love
from each other, but most importantly from our Father above. 


I am so thankful, He doesn't define us by our special needs - he only sees his beautiful child.







Sunday, September 11, 2016

Stumblin'

I'm stumblin'.   I've been running at a breakneck pace for several weeks on end without stop and I find I'm starting to misstep.  Ever run until you're so tired your feet start to take on a mind of their own?  Legs act independently.  Limbs begin to decide where the path is instead of listening to the optical input your brain is translating.  The predictable outcome is the misstep, the stutter-step, or the outright face plant.  Comical to watch, unpleasant to live. 


It seems my brain is taking on a mind of its own...


The fuse seems uncharacteristically short in recent days.  Syllables I'm not sure I would normally utter tumble forth more freely.  Words of grace seem distant and the exercising of that grace towards others can seem a herculean effort when so many are in such a hurry and care very little to reciprocate.  Emotions expose more quickly and Karmic justice is the desired end for trespass.


Escape.


Escape to the garrison of my home.  That's all I need - the safety of my castle.  My domus.
Here I find my beautiful bride.  She is strength to me.  She brings order to chaos.  She orders our home, she orchestrates the meeting of our physical needs.  She clothes and feeds us.  She is raising a young man and two pre-teens while I daily venture into the world to gather the income our family relies upon.  She, in a word, is "amazing". 


And she is stressed.  In my absence of excessive work the strain is showing in our family.  "All hands on deck" is slowing to "A few hands holding the whole thing up".  In the midst of this, a boy adopted from trauma and abuse spirals into a negative behavioral cycle.  These usually ebb and flow.  We expect them from time to time.  But something is amiss, something is off.  This spiral is a nosedive to depths we've not encountered before. 


Perfect timing for my bride who is essentially "single parenting" for weeks on end.  Working six and seven days a week, I leave before the kids are up.  I often return after they've gone to bed.  And my bride has a few minutes via a phone call or before I collapse to sleep to recount the myriad of emotional highs and lows experienced throughout the day.  To say I've dropped the ball on this conversation a few times would be an understatement.  Thankfully this pace is starting to wind down, but at home, I've been stumblin'. 


I ran across the following recently.  It hurt all the way down to my stubbed and achy stumblin' toes.


Great peace have those who love your law, and nothing can make them stumble.
Psalm 119:165


In the Hebrew in which this was written, this literally says


Great and abundant welfare, tranquility and contentment belongs to those who hunger and desire for God's instruction and direction and nothing will be a stumbling block to them or cause them to fall.


I can honestly say, my "hunger" for God's instruction in recent weeks has gotten lost somewhere between deadlines, appointments, project schedules, invoices, home, and child tantrums.  In fact, I'm pretty certain that I have been fasting and consequently malnourished.  Priorities.  The end result:  stumblin'.


But I have all these responsibilities.  I have the carnival of life going on around me.  It's a three-ring circus and I don't want to get in the clown car again.  I have the weight of the world on my shoulders and sometimes it's just too heavy.  How many would echo similar sentiment?


Jesus would.


In fact, he too stumbled.


He stumbled under the weight of all of it.  The whole world, for all time, on his shoulders.  It started in a garden.  Close friends dozed nearby as he could feel the approach of the storm.  The sheer weight of what was to come drove him to his knees as he bitterly wept "let there be another way..."


It continued in the dragging of rough hewn timbers through dusty streets.  He stumbled despite the screaming, despite the raucous, despite the whips.


It's zenith was with a shuddering breath as a sin laden savior released us all with the words "It is finished".


It concluded when quiet, sure feet, stepped confidently past the stone that was rolled back into the open, never to falter again.


He stumbled so I wouldn't have to. 
Does this mean I never will?  Hardly.  But when I do, I know there is one who knows the alarm of the fall, the dread of the impact, and the pain of the blow.  He's always there with outstretched hand to help me set my feet, and end the stutter-step so that I can move on with purposeful firm steps in the direction that he has for me.


Patiently, he is ever at the ready to lift me up so that I don't have to keep stumblin'.















Monday, August 15, 2016

Laughing at Thieves

I noted his face on the side of a social media page.  A local man that many would recognize if I were to give his name.  With a sense of curiosity that teetered on "I really shouldn't" and " I wonder..." I succumbed and found that a whole page had been devoted to just this man.  It was a page with hundreds of members and thousands of posts.  What had garnered this man so much attention?  What had brought this man so keenly into the spotlight?




This man is a thief; a con-artist.  This man is a criminal.


Again, were I to name this person many would immediately know of whom I write.  Such notoriety has this man gathered to himself.  Such visibility.  Many have had run-ins with him.  Many have fallen for his tales of desperation.  This man has made a living in recent years preying upon the humanitarian and benevolent nature of even the most callous of hearts.  This man has also been caught and been in jail numerous times for numerous offenses.


I recall I had been approached by this man once coming out of grocery store with my family.  My bride and I don't usually give cash but this time I felt led to and my bride followed my lead and he gained a small amount of money and a few of our groceries.  Regardless of what this man did with the money, we determined he was not going to go hungry that night.  But we stopped him and our family prayed with him before doing so.  Gullible?  I don't think so.  If there was no other blessing than my children praying over the man and seeing the lesson of loving others, it was worth it.


Now it seems the tables have turned.  Now a social media site exists just to notify of this man's existence, whereabouts, and doings.  And I was reading it.


"He's at _____ gas station hitting up some guy!"
"Crossing the street in front of _____."
"Resting 'tired' feet at the corner of ______ & ______."
"I wonder how many meals he cried money for today?"
"Think he'll ever make it to ______?  He's been trying to get gas money for years."
"He could've walked there by now.  Where's the car?"


What I was viewing was nothing short of a page dedicated to ridicule.  But this is a criminal so he has it coming, right?  He is guilty of theft, coercion, assault, trespassing - that people know of.  Who knows what this man has done in the darkness, alone or unseen?  This man has earned this page - earned the "wrath of the robbed".  Everywhere he now goes he will be despised, shunned, and ridiculed.  People will avert their faces from him.  He will disappear as he becomes a "non-person" for the avoidance he has garnered.  His is a slow death into the forgotten as others mock from a safe distance.


Similar to thieves flanking a crucified savior.


And the people stood by, watching, but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”
One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?  And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.”  And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Luke 23:35-43


One of the people I follow and respect on social media wrote something to ponder regarding the significance of what just occurred at the end of these verses.


I keep going back to this man on a cross next to Jesus. A thief. A criminal. And he had nothing - zero - to offer. No religious resume. No great... story. Nothing. What a loser, right? But he recognized Jesus.


I think at times, we can all be like each of the people in the above narrative.  I like to think I'm not the religious rulers - judgmental, pious, and calloused.  Certainly I don't want to be the soldiers driving the nails - harsh, brash, and insensitive.  I don't want to be the mouthy thief either, trying to get out of his sentence to return to old habits by bartering with the Son of God for an escape clause.  And the crowd standing by gaping, staring, transfixed, immobile?  Inaction at its best. But am I the other thief?  Am I the loser?  He was a criminal, a justly punished man and he lost everything.  Dignity, pride, honor, family, wealth, even his life.  Do we relate to this man?


Consider this; of all the people mentioned with Jesus here, who came out on top?  Who in this crowd ended up with the best outcome possible, securing a front row seat in eternity with the one who was there when the stars were spoken into brilliance and the oceans roared forth from the deep?  (I'll give you a hint - it wasn't the ones who knew the religious rules backwards and forwards.)  It also wasn't the ones imbued with authority and power.  It wasn't even the numerous (I guess the popular vote doesn't count for much in the Kingdom). 


Once again, Jesus picks the low to be high.  He picks the loser to win.  Once again, he spins our preconceived notions of justice, order, and equity to remind that there is only one Judge and he values the low, the least, and the lame.  He seeks out the prostitute, the tax cheat, and the diseased walking dead to lavish love upon and transform the world. 


And a thief is heralded into paradise.


Once again, Jesus reminds that we need to think twice before laughing at thieves.





Thursday, August 11, 2016

Buying Dirt

I'm buying dirt. 


Nothing fancy, nothing that stands out.  Simple soil.  Dusty earth.  Dirt.


Not many would follow this course.  Today's realtor would size up the potential resale.  The farmer might look for the nutrient value in the soil.  The engineer might calculate the slope for erosion or compressive strength.  The architect might envision the view captured.  The anthropologist might ponder the significance of peoples who have long since fallen.  Even the geologist might beg to question the displacement of centuries and millennia or the mineral content contained within. 


I want none of the above.  I want the dirt.  Give me a whole field of it.  Take everything I have in exchange.  Just give me the dirt.


Jesus would be proud.  He said so.


"The Kingdom of Heaven is like a treasure that a man discovered hidden in a field. In his excitement, he hid it again and sold everything he owned to get enough money to buy the field."
Matthew 13:44


I have my bride to thank.  She pointed out to me the other day that we have found ourselves on this path whether we realized it or not.  We don't recall making the conscious choice to do so, it just seemed a natural step in following Jesus' desire for our lives and our home.  Where careers could have been pursued, children were reared.  Where security could have been shadowed, we chased after adoption.  Where comfort and 'peace of mind' could have been enjoyed, small ones were held, fought for, and prayed over. 


Where every aspect of this American prosperous existence could be planned for and secured, we seemingly screwed it up over and over again by making left turns, right turns, turns towards sacrifice and uncertainty.  Some of these roads led to great joys.  Some led to conflict.  Others lead to heartache.  And yet in each instance we truly felt led onto those paths by a knowledge that something far, far more valuable was at stake than our personal comfort, our 401K, or the gleam of our vehicle. 


And we're not the only ones.  We are fortunate to know and be encouraged by others who have chosen this economy as well.  Whether it be the orphan through adoption and foster care, the homeless, the sick and downtrodden, or reaching for peoples in distant lands; these have chosen to invest in what is contrary to Wall Street, what is contradictory to the teachings of the schools of finance.  Families have swollen far past "birth children".  Deep bonds have been formed with amazing souls from far off lands.  Many have sacrificed much to look intently into abused eyes to affirm "you have worth".


Again, I have my bride to thank.  For she recently reminded me of the above verse and the choices we had and will continue to make in our lives - to pursue the truly valuable treasures, even when they cost much.  They come in many forms and at various times, mostly at inconvenient and inopportune moments.  But soil usually is most noticeable when we're trying to stay clean, isn't it?  So why do we try?  One of my favorite memories is rolling and sitting in red sandy Swaziland soil with half a dozen children from Ludlati chatting the afternoon away as we played "count the passing goats" - truly an entertaining game when you've never seen or played the like.  The giggles and laughter mixed with thick African accents that day still resound in my ears.  The cost to get there was great.  The return on the investment; priceless.


I'm buying dirt.  With everything I've got.


Because that's where the lasting treasure is.





Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Bookends

I was enjoying a country drive with my bride.  The meandering highway escorted us past emerald fields of crops in process.  Waist high feathered grasses beckoned us to continue to lose ourselves in the day and each other.  Time was ignored as it flew past like the yellow center line patterns, innumerable and irrelevant.  It was a weekday and for some reason this added extra color to the sky, heightened awareness of the organic artistry surrounding, and greater appreciation for the one next to me. 


We laughed, we dreamed, we imagined.  I love that I can still do these things with this woman after 20 years of marriage.  She is my bride, young and beautiful.  She is more wise than the girl I married years ago, made so by trial and heartache, challenge and adversity.  But her deep blue eyes still twinkle joyfully and her hands are soft within mine.  We recounted the joys of our years together.  We reminisced some of the dark times and how amazing it was that we survived these.  We recalled the wonders of the miracles that God had worked in our lives in our children, our marriage, and our home.  We marveled at how different we were and yet how perfect we still found ourselves to be for each other. 


Then we began to take note of the people God had brought into our lives.  Friendships, deep and true, had been forged with profound depth and commonality.  My bride likes to say "these are our people - these are the people we 'do life' with".  In discussing we articulated how perfect for each other these married friends of ours seemed.  How God had seemingly perfectly matched their personalities and giftings as well.  We are fortunate to have a tribe of close friends who fit this description.  Then my bride said something that stuck with me.  "They were meant to be together, they're bookends."


Bookends.  Complimentary objects designed to contain.  In the case of my bride's statement two people so perfectly matched they were easily marked for the their complimentary nature and the life they, together, contained between.  In pondering my own marriage I find that the script of our life together is not a book in process, but rather volumes in process.  Chapters with interweaving plot points are continually updated and added.  The book of our early years is slim.  The tome of parenthood is far thicker and a work continually being written as we daily script triumphs and failures trying our best to raise the next generation. An addendum of foster-care and adoption was added some years back, another work in process.  Some pages are dark and I would tear them out if I could but this would leave holes in the narrative of us.  Some pages are my favorite, but do not paint the entirety of the story.  It is the collection that is the definitive work of our lives, the collection between the bookends.


This, too, is true of each of us individually.  We are each of us a collection.  Some chapters are dark and foreboding.  Some should be forgotten and not opened again.  Some are worth visiting often.  Some are a delight and cause us to be proud of achievements garnered, choices made, and paths trodden.  Some cause us to marvel either at our own ineptitude or at the miracle of divine intervention in our lives. 


Though we visit the pages often, we cannot live in those pages again.  They have already been written.  The text of our lives is ever unfolding whether it be a poem, a song, or story of hardship.  Ever the script flows and ever it evolves with us.  Others catch glimpses of it.  Some get a synopsis.  A very few learn the details of the text.  Only one knows every word and punctuation better than we do.  He holds the quill.


Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
Hebrews 12:1-2


When we are certain we are destined to write a tragedy, he is the one who has seen the entirety.  He is the hero interwoven throughout the story, chapter by chapter, volume by volume, ever present.  He knows the last word from the first letter of our lives.  His perspective is complete.  Tears birth redemption, heartache brings forth joy.  Death is swallowed by life.  His is the final word in the story because he is the word who took on skin.


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


If we'll let him define the parameters of our lives we find that regardless of the script written -  the collection of our triumphs, failures, joys, and tragedies - the chapters of our lives will ultimately culminate in the text he has written for us, the volumes he has prepared for us to live out.  Each of these has a place in our lives, beginning to end.  There will be dark chapters, there will be joyous chapters, there will be chapters of achievement and chapters of seemingly little consequence.  We may lose ourselves in the pages and question the direction of the storyline.  This is where the author asks us to trust him with the plot, for he truly does have the most perfect of endings ready to reveal.


And one day, we will look back and appreciate the texts between the bookends.






Out of Hell


Out of Hell
by Skillet














I've been down in the dirt, lost for so long
And pushed around, beaten down
Got nothing left to lose, all hope is gone
Got buried deep underground


Oh, can you see me?
Oh, can you hear me?


Can you hear me screaming for you?
I'm afraid I'm gonna die down here
I can't save, I can't save myself
Get me out, get me out of Hell
I'm suffocating waiting for you
Cause the angels don't fly down here
I need you because no one else
Can get me out, get me out of Hell


I can't trust anyone, all that I got
Is another scarred, broken heart
I've been stabbed in the back, the bleeding won't stop
Just another cut in the dark


Oh, can you see me?
Oh, can you hear me?


Can you hear me screaming for you?
I'm afraid I'm gonna die down here
I can't save, I can't save myself
Get me out, get me out of Hell
I'm suffocating waiting for you
Cause the angels don't fly down here
I need you because no one else
Can get me out, get me out of Hell


Can you hear me?
Can you see me?
I can feel you now
Get me out, get me out of Hell
Can you hear me screaming for you?
I'm afraid I'm gonna die down here
I need you because no one else
Can get me out, get me out of Hell

Friday, July 29, 2016

Behind the Eyes

The eyes.


We've often heard them called "windows to the soul".  How often have we found this to be true?  Do we regularly evaluate the condition of one's inner being by their ocular orbs?  Doubtful.  I find that I regularly miss this tell in most people, either through my own lack of attention to detail or through their proficiency in the construction of the facade.  I wish I could read people better, but there are those who simply do not wish to be read.  Flip the coin.


How often have we worked to hide the inner churning, mask the building agitations, or simply quell the internal pain by painting on the smile, putting on 'the face', praying all the while that our eyes do not belie the tempest beneath?  Do we lack trust in those around that we should expose our weaknesses safely?  Perhaps we seek to avert confrontation, preferring a boiling emotional state over an honest confrontational discourse. 


Perhaps we simply do not value the other person enough to desire to know what their motives, thoughts, ideas, or opinions are.  After all, to be armed with this knowledge is to then be required to potentially yield our own in difference in the name of loving others and this is difficult.  Worse, perhaps we do not wish to participate in another's trials, sufferings, or cares or even share our own.  We become content with "How are you?" and "I'm fine, you?" answered by "Doing great!" when one or more of the participants have no intention of laying open truths or realities.  To do so is to expose soul and fiber of being, sensitive and raw existence.  This is living where no one goes...


Except He did.


Very recently some dear friends had a visitor from another nation stay with them.  This visitor was a child, an orphan participating in a visitation program to partner prospective interested adoptive families with children who have either never known family or have lost every resemblance of it.  This child was loved on, cherished, and blessed in every way that our friends could think of while staying with them.  This child was beautiful and amazing and we were so happy to have gotten to spend a small amount of time with them simply because our friends were hosting.


As part of the program, there are several opportunities for the children to come into contact with prospective families during their time in the U.S.  This child had those opportunities, but the few families that showed potential interest quickly retracted their inquiries once they either met the child or found out about the medical issues this child is currently dealing with.  Some of them are visible.  Some are general cognitive delays common to children who have spent extensive time in orphanage or foster systems.  In short, when confronted with this child's appearance and potential challenges, most turned from the opportunity before them denying this child a home and potentially a future.


This saddened me greatly.  It saddened me as a father who has adopted a child from an abuse and trauma background, knowing how life altering and life-saving this opportunity was.  It saddened me as I recognized some of the issues at hand as being significant, but manageable in our country's health care systems - some of which we had actually overcome in our own adoptive son's health and well being.  It saddened me for the families who missed out on the most rewarding experience they will ever know this side of heaven because adoption is as close to the model of heaven as anything I've witnessed on this earth. 


It saddened me because fear won out against love.  It saddened me because if these people could just look past this child's immediate problems, look past their immediate challenges - if they could just look intently past this child's eyes they would see the value and beauty of the person beneath.  And then it saddened me because I knew I was guilty of the very same thing on a regular basis.  Many of us are.


We are each of us beautiful and amazing souls, "fearfully and wonderfully made".  This dermis, these fabrics, the metal wheeled containers we transport ourselves in, the brick and wooden cubes we inhabit - none of these place additional or detract value from the created beauty of each and every one of us. 


Some of us are regularly depositing earnings into checking accounts.  Some of us are raising children.  Some of us are reaching for our brothers and sisters, some of us are homeless, some of us are alone.  None of us are worthless or deemed too great a cost to pursue, for He pursued each of us to the ultimate cost to self.  He calls us to do likewise. 


But this cannot be done at distance.  This cannot be done impersonally, safely, or remotely.  It cannot be done without involvement in another human's life, love, and pain.  I am fortunate to know several who are half a world away at the time of this writing, who (along with their families) have undergone sacrifice and cost to do just that; touch another human heart to show love - His love.  They are currently experiencing the greatest of joys staring deeply into brown eyes, sharing heartaches, laughter, songs, and prayers with many who we in this nation would call destitute, but who are far more wealthy than can be calculated by the temporal.  I wish I were with them. 


But I don't have to be.


Opportunities surround each of us daily.  They are in the co-worker who continually walks under a raincloud.  They are in the foul-mouthed man you try to avoid.  They are in the needy and the homeless crowding the local relief shelters.  They are even in the church seat next to you. 


The paradigm shift is yours to make.  Will you remain safe, comfortable, and distant?  Or will you engage and find out who is behind the eyes?









Friday, July 15, 2016

Just a Second

"Just a second..."


I utter this phrase frequently.  Usually I am engaged in something that has my full attention and one of my children is standing nearby saying something like "dad, dad, dad, daddy, daddy, dad...".  My youngest son is particularly fond of doing this to both my bride and I.  We've even teased him that if he doesn't stop we're going to start calling him Stewie.  "Just a second, Austin!"


We all realize that when we say this we're not asking for, literally, one more second but however much time is needed to complete the task we are engaged in be it tens of seconds, minutes, or more.  In fact, "just a second" seems a bit of a misleading and untruthful phrase because who can accomplish or finish anything in a second?  Try it.  Without reading past this sentence, think of things you can do in one second's span of time.  I'm guessing your list, like mine, is short.


Here are a few I came up with:


take a breath
blink
turn my head
snap my fingers
count to one
cough


Not enough time to do much more, at least not in my perception.  But perception is everything isn't it.  What if I told you insects and snails have more than enough time in one second.  Follow me down the rabbit hole...


A second is all it takes for a bullet to travel 900 meters (over 1/2 mile) and penetrate its target.
In a second, a snail will dance to the side or forward one centimeter to avoid a rain drop.
A honeybee flaps its wings 200+ times in that same second.
Every second, 79 stars vanish from space.  Implosion, explosion?
Our sun floods this earth with 48.6 billion kilowatts of energy every second.
Every second, the populace of this planet consumes 1500 gallons of carbonated drinks.
418 Kit-Kat fingers (4 fingers to a bar) are consumed around the world every second. 

Suddenly a second seems quite active, doesn't it?  I find humor in our drink and Kit-Kat consumption rates, but I am astounded at the raw quantities of energy our star is continually roaring through 90+ million miles towards our world with.  In an instant dozens of suns the size of ours, some smaller, some hundreds of times larger, regularly vanish from our sight and instrumentation.  In a moment, a projectile hurtles towards its target over 2600 feet away.  My mind has trouble wrapping around these numbers.  Not even included is the millions of times elemental atoms vibrate per second.

In scripture you won't find the word "second" as a frame of reference for the passage of time.  The idea of breaking days and hours into smaller components existed but our refinements of clocks, weights, and measures did not.  Rather you will find phrases like "moment", "at that hour (meaning instantly)", and "in the twinkling of an eye (also meaning near instantly)".  God exists outside the linear time that we are bound by.  Yet he still operates within it though he is not limited by it. 

Some examples:  listen to God speaking of the nation of Israel after they have been in rebellion and come in repentance back to him.

For the Lord had said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites, ‘You are a stiff-necked people. If I were to go with you even for a moment, I might destroy you."   Exodus 33:5

God would have obliterated millions of people in their sinful state in just a second - simply by the nature of who he is and what sin is in his presence.  Our God is a holy, holy God.

In Matthew we learn of a woman who had exhausted all of her resources over many years going from one physician to the next with a blood illness that was gradually wasting her away.  With amazing faith she reaches out.


She said to herself, “If I only touch his cloak, I will be healed.”  Jesus turned and saw her. “Take heart, daughter,” he said, “your faith has healed you.” And the woman was healed at that moment.

Matthew 9:21-22



The word for "moment" here denotes an instant changing of state from what was to what currently is.  It took just a second.


Again in Matthew, we learn of another woman of faith convinced that her daughter would be healed.  So much so that she wouldn't leave Jesus alone.

Then Jesus said to her, "Woman, you have great faith!  Your request is granted."  And her daughter was healed at that moment.
Matthew 15:28

In a similar timeframe history was upended, the earth upheaved and all of creation breathed a sigh of sorrow.

And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.   At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life.
Matthew 27:50-52





Our relationship with our Heavenly Father was forever altered in just a second.

 

But what if Jesus had said "Just a second"?  What if Jesus, busy as he usually was, told the woman with the daughter, "Just give me a minute"?  This is a guy who typically had a throng of people around him, all clamoring for his attention; all looking for him to meet their needs.  Wouldn't it be within his right to say "Just wait a sec" once and awhile"?  We don't read that do we?  We read of a man who was fully engaged, fully available, fully compassionate.

 

I fail at this regularly and I'm not even talking about at work or on the street.  I can become so engrossed in the inconsequential that I easily shoo off my own child who simply wants to tell me that they put the toilet paper on the roller when they were finished in the bathroom like they were supposed to.  Life changing knowledge? Not really.  An opportunity to build up my child and strengthen my relationship with them?  Golden - I should be so lucky to have these so often.  The infusion of worth and value is the one of the most precious gifts we can give another.

 

Too often we take for granted and miss these opportunities in our homes, in our places of work, in the world around us because we are honed in on the tasks and priorities that we feel are most important, all the while losing out on the highest of priorities that Jesus boiled down to two little statements.  Love God with everything in you.  Love neighbor as self.  To walk these out will change the world in which you walk and God will open door after door for you to be his light in darkness.

 

It is his desire for us to become the means by which lives are changed.  But it requires a willingness to become uncomfortable.  It is not always comfortable to rub shoulders with the homeless.  It is not always comfortable to take in the orphan or the foster child.  It is not always comfortable to listen to the co-worker lamenting over their problems.  Love is not always comfortable.  My bride came up with the phrase "messy love" and it is an accurate depiction of what we are called to walk out.  Rarely is it convenient, and rarely is it along the same path we were planning on traveling.

But often, it starts with giving just a second...