Reflections from a Windshield…

My odometer after a 13-hour segment of my trip.

I recently spent 27 hours alone looking through a windshield. When you’re alone for 27 hours, it gives you a lot of time to think.

First, though, I should clarify that I didn’t drive 27 hours straight! I made a trip to North Carolina for a “Journey” session of the Evangelical Methodist Church, so the drive was broken up into three segments. On the way up, I drove a nine hour session the first day and finished the trip with a five hour trip the second day. The final day, it was thirteen hours of hard driving. I was ready to get home! Here are a few of my random reflections after those 27 hours:

1. Amazon moves a lot of merchandise!

Amazon Prime trucks outnumbered any other trucking company 3 to 1. I lost count after the first four hours on the road. No wonder Amazon is putting Mom and Pop out of business. Jeff Bezos figured out how to capitalize on our desire (need?) for convenience. Convenience is great, but Amazon won’t be reinvesting much in our local communities. We need Mom and Pop shops in the worst kind of way!

2. Buc-ee’s is a destination convenience store.

Buc-ee’s Drink Counter

If you haven’t been to Buc-ee’s, you just have to go! It’s called a convenience store, but it’s really a mall disguised as a convenience store. Or, it’s an amusement park disguised as a convenience store. I’m not sure which. Anyway, I stopped twice in Leeds, Alabama. I can’t NOT stop when I pass one. You have to try the Beaver Nuggets, and the BBQ turkey sandwich ain’t bad, either.

3. Why is there an automobile shortage?

After Amazon Prime trucks, I noticed that auto transport trucks were everywhere, and they were full of automobiles going somewhere. Someone smarter than me who understands the automobile industry would have to explain why there are so few cars on our car lots here in the south. As I made my way further east and north, it appeared as though car dealers along the east coast had greater inventories than those nearer me. Of course, I saw a good number of those transports with “Carvana” written on them. Is Carvana buying up all the used cars?

4. A person can only listen to so much Dave Ramsey.

Or any podcast, for that matter. Yes, I listen to Dave Ramsey. Yes, I live a debt free life (all except my mortgage). Yes, I think generally he gives good advice, but six straight hours of listening to Dave Ramsey gets old! And yes, he can come across as arrogant. Honestly, though, sometimes, so can I, so I give him grace. I really do need to find some other podcasts to listen to!

5. I would have made a great classic rocker!

Pandora Radio is a gift from God! Type in the artist or genre you want to listen to and “voila,” you can listen to your heart’s content. Such was the case for me and Classic Rock Radio. I’m sure there were more than a few folks who looked at me funny as they passed by with me singing along with CCR, The Eagles, The Stones and The Allman Brothers. It would have been great to be a part of one of those bands. Not sure I could rock the hair, though.

I am, however, confused as to what constitutes “classic rock.” In all the hours I listened, I didn’t hear Elvis or the Beatles. I didn’t hear Queen or Aerosmith. I didn’t hear Fleetwood Mac. Who is the arbiter of what qualifies as “classic rock”? Apparently, if I want to hear these folks, I have to tune to “Yacht Rock Radio,” and even that one didn’t play Elvis. But, then again, there’s always “Elvis Radio!”

6. Jackson, Mississippi’s roads are the most fun.

Driving through Jackson, Mississippi is like riding a roller coaster. Up and down and all around. Those roads will take you for a ride!

7. Louisiana roads are still the worst.

Jackson, Mississippi notwithstanding, Louisiana, by far has the worst interstate of any of the six states I traversed over the past week. I don’t know where our tax dollars are going, but they aren’t going to fix the interstate. I also noticed that Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina are all charging in their metro areas for using their express lanes. They built express lanes and posted signage to alert motorists to what it will cost if they choose to utilize it. What a novel idea. C’mon, Louisiana. We can do better. We should demand better.

8. I have a greater appreciation for truck drivers.

I couldn’t, for the life of me, imagine being a truck driver. That’s got to be a hard life, and I’m not simply talking about being gone from home so much. I’m talking about after nine straight hours of driving through rain, heavy traffic and Jackson, Mississippi, I was TIRED! Imagine doing that day after day after day. Yup! You get to see a lot of the country, but it takes a toll on your body. And, let’s face it, driving a truck is not conducive to good health. Sitting on your duff all day and eating in greasy spoon truck stops will take a toll on you, too.

I’ll just say a big “thank you” to all those in the trucking industry who keep our economy humming. You’re the best!

9. Love’s Travel Stop coffee is better than McDonald’s coffee.

I challenge you to change my mind! I drank a lot of both over the four days I was out of town. I tend to get sleepy when I’m driving long distances (say like from Ruston to Minden, haha!), so when I’m driving alone I tend to stop and get coffee. No, it’s not the caffeine. It’s the fact that I have to DO something, and the activity of drinking and picking up and putting down the cup keep me awake. Of course, the way I see it, there’s good coffee, better coffee and the best coffee. McDonald’s coffee is good coffee, Love’s Travel Stop coffee is better coffee and free coffee is the best coffee. I challenge you to change my mind!

10. I have an absolutely amazing wife!

Our new living room after three days.

We’ve moved. Now, here’s the rub. We moved on Monday and I left town on Wednesday. That should have meant a divorce, but my absolutely amazing wife put her head down and did the work of unpacking boxes and arranging furniture and fixing a home, so that when I got back, it was like we’d lived here for months. Yes, there’s still a lot to do, but it’s just incredible the effort and love she puts into making a house our home. And, all without a single complaint (well, at least not to me).

11. Covid is basically over.

Okay, I know Covid is not over. Just typing that it is over may get me banned from WordPress or Facebook. I suppose it depends on which fact-checker is on duty the day I post this blog. Seriously, though, I was in six states over four days, and everywhere I went, from restaurants to convenience stores to churches to hotels, 90% of the people were not wearing masks, nor were they observing six foot of distance. Though, the pandemic may not be over, most people are acting like it is. That’s not a political statement. It’s a simple observation.

12. I discovered my new tribe.

Okay, so I don’t like to use the word “tribe.” I do so only because it seems to be in vogue, but I did discover that I am at home in the Evangelical Methodist Church. It was my first in-person event with the denomination since joining, and I felt completely at home. The folks welcomed me as if I’d been a part of them forever. I felt like an outsider for about ten minutes. After that, I felt as though I belonged. I’m grateful to the Lord for leading me down this path, and I’m grateful for the new friends I’ve met along the way, and I’m grateful for the beautiful hand-made stole that was gifted to every elder from the EMC in Myanmar. What a gift!

I also discovered I missed going to seminars and conferences. It was fulfilling to hear great Holy Spirit-led preaching. It was encouraging to hear what the Lord is doing in local congregations around the world, and to be led in seminars that were designed to strengthen pastors and local congregations. I confess that I was grieved when the time together came to an end.

13. I’M OLD!

I’m too dad-gum old to drive thirteen hours straight. My butt hurts! I moved more slowly each time I stepped out of my truck, and I was beat when I arrived in Ruston on Saturday. In my mind, I’m still a teenager running around Chatham, LA, but my body tells me another story, and it’s not a story I want to hear. My driving tells me another story, too, and it affirms the one my body tells me. I don’t drive as fast as I once did (that’s probably a good thing). I’m more anxious driving than I once was, and I notice that I seem to be just a tick slower in responding to other drivers than I used to be. It’s bothersome, but it’s real. I promise I won’t talk about old people’s driving again!

So, there you have my reflections after 27 hours of windshield time. There’s not a single profound reflection among them, but they do reflect how my mind works, or doesn’t work (since I’m old). I’m just passing them along as food for thought. Maybe you’ll get something out of them. Then again, maybe not.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Be Careful What You Pray for (and other random thoughts)…

I haven’t blogged in a while. My “blogging” had become little more than a regurgitation of sermons I was preaching, and well, honestly, that seemed like a waste of time, so I let it go. Maintaining margin in life demands that we must let go of some things. Posting an edited sermon (though it didn’t take a lot of time) was one of those things I could let go without affecting too much else. But…

Since I haven’t “blogged” in a while, a lot of random thoughts have just sort of piled up, so anyone reading this will get my thought vomit as I use today’s blog for what blogging was supposed to be in the beginning–a journal. Speaking of journaling, I used to be an avid journaler. Not so much anymore. Since I started a job in the “real world,” I find it difficult to find the time to journal like I once did. It makes me appreciate in a much deeper way those persons who do live in the rhythm of a regular spiritual discipline. Cudo’s to you, I say!

Okay, so random thought number one is to confess that I found it easier to establish a pattern of spiritual discipline when I was serving in vocational ministry. I’m not sure if that is because I had more time (I seriously doubt it), or I made more time (out of guilt or a sense of duty), or if I was simply more in-tune to the Spirit and that brought intentionality. Whatever the motivation then, I am challenged more to find and/or make the time to practice the spiritual disciplines.

One spiritual discipline that I haven’t relinquished is prayer. I still pray…a lot. One thing I’m praying for even in this moment is for my friends and former colleagues in Southwest Louisiana. They have been hit hard over the past several hours with rain and tornadoes. Of course, that rain and those tornadoes is on top of the hurricanes from last year from which people are still recovering. I pray for strength and hope to fill their hearts and lives, and for the merciless insurance companies to discover some amount of mercy as flood waters recede and recovery begins.

Speaking of prayer. Yesterday, I prayed what I thought to be a bold prayer–“I’m broken…Lord, break me more.” I suppose this is confession number two, but I’ve been a bit spiritually broken lately. I won’t bore you with details, but there has been a bit of unsettledness in our lives as of late, and that unsettledness has caused me to question the Lord on not a few occasions. I have dealt with some anger. I have dealt with some doubt. I have dealt with some confusion, and if I’m being totally honest, I’ve dealt with some fear, too. I just sort of laid that out before the Lord and said, “I’m broken.” Immediately, I knew my prayer had to be, “Lord, break me more.”

Well, be careful what you pray for!

Here’s what I heard in reply:

“You know, Lynn, one of your problems is that you are confusing your wants and your needs. What you want is for Me to be an add-on to your self-centered life, but what you need is for Me to totally eradicate your self-centeredness. You also know that if I give you what you need, it’s going to be painful, and I know you really don’t like pain that much. So, as long as you waver between what you want and what you need, you’re going to continue to be unsettled. When you’re ready, I’ll give you what you need. That, too, may be unsettling, but you’ll have peace, and that’s really what you’re lacking right now.”

“What you want is for Me to be an add-on to your self-centered life, but what you need is for Me to totally eradicate your self-centeredness.”

So, as is always the case, one prayer leads to another, and today my prayer has become, “Lord, give me peace.” Confession number three, I’m a little afraid of how He will answer that prayer, too. In some ways, I feel a little like Sonny (played by Robert Duvall) from the film “The Apostle.” I said in some ways I feel like Sonny…not all ways, but I do want to shout out “Give me peace! Give it to me, give it to me, give it to me!” If you want to see what I mean, you can watch it here.

So, I’m going to just leave it there for now. It might give you pause for contemplation. And besides, that’s about all the random thoughts I can handle for now.

Until next time, keep looking up…

When the Honeymoon is Over…

You know my friend, Boudreaux? I think I’ve told you about him before. Well, Boudreaux and his wife, Clotile, go down to St. Peter’s Catholic Church, and down there at St. Peter’s, they hold weekly husband’s marriage seminars.

At the session one week, the priest asked Boudreaux, who was approaching his 50th wedding anniversary to Clotile, to take a few minutes and share some insight into how he had managed to stay married to the same woman all these years.

Boudreaux replied to the assembled husbands: “Well, I’ve tried to treat her nice, spend the money on her, but best of all is, I took her to Italy for the 25th anniversary!”

The priest responded: “Boudreaux, you are an amazing inspiration to all the husbands here! Please tell us what you are planning for your wife for your 50th anniversary?”

Boudreaux proudly replied: “I’m gonna’ go pick her up.”

A METAPHOR FOR GRACE

Oh, that life were that easy, right? We all know it’s not. Those of us who have been married any length of time know that marriage is hard work. As we continue resetting our understanding of God’s grace and how we experience our relationship with God, I remind us that our relationship with God can somewhat be compared to a relationship of a husband and wife in marriage. There is the courtship stage of the relationship, where one partner “woos” the other, inviting them into a relationship. That courtship stage, when God is wooing us into a relationship with Himself, we experience God’s prevenient grace.

Then, there is the moment we say “I do” to God, when we are, by grace, able to acknowledge that God desires to have a relationship with us…we hear His voice…and we say “Yes” to Him. That moment, that part of the relationship, we experience the justifying grace of God. We experience the forgiveness of our sins, and we are given new life in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. As a husband and wife stand before the altar and publicly proclaim their love and say “I do” to each other, so we proclaim our love and commitment to Christ.

Something happens after the wedding ceremony, though. Yes, I know we like to think it’s called the honeymoon, and there is that honeymoon phase of marriage that everything seems to be wonderful. Of course, I can say I’ve been on an almost 40-year honeymoon, but that’s for another day. Seriously, though, we know what happens…and it’s called life. It is God’s sanctifying grace that sustains us over the long haul of life. It is His grace made real in the challenging times, in the everyday times…when life happens.

A CALL TO HOLINESS

Sanctifying grace is God at work in us through the Holy Spirit to transform us. Our journey, our spiritual journey, is a journey toward transformation. When we come to Jesus Christ and he forgives our sin and gives us a new start, that’s not the end of the journey. In that moment, Jesus does something for us. If justifying grace is God doing something for us, sanctifying grace is God doing something in us. The something He desires to do is make us holy. We hear that word “holy,” and we think, “Who me? Holy? No way.” Yet, that is the life Christ call us to.

Let me pause here and insert that living a holy life is not living a holier-than-thou life. None of us will likely ever live a sinless life, at least that’s been my experience—but that could just be me. Certainly, John Wesley taught that not only does Christ deliver us from the consequence and penalty of sin, but he also delivers us from the power of sin.

As we journey through this life, there will always be temptations to sin. There will be challenges to our faith. There will be crises that cause us to doubt. We will deal with death. We will deal with disease. We will deal with difficult people. We will be angry. We will be frustrated. That’s life! In those times, we need grace, and God gives us grace so that we need not surrender to the baser instincts of our fallen nature. Christ gives us new life. Christ gives us new hope. It is Christ who sustains us through the journey.

The holiness Christ call us to is different than sinlessness. As Wesley taught it, and we understand it, holiness is nothing more…but also nothing less…than love for God and love for neighbor. It is to love as God loves. Jesus gave us two great commandments. We find them in Mark 12: 29 – 31: “The most important one,’ answered Jesus, ‘is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.

Holiness is about growing up in love. It is growth, and as I anticipate the coming of summer and that first ripe tomato of the season, I’m reminded that growth is a process. We don’t miraculously love as God loves. Oh, that it would be so simple. Growth is a process, and holiness is a process. Yes, there is, in one sense, where we are made holy by the work of Christ on the cross, but holiness that is lived out occurs over time. Don’t be surprised if you didn’t wake up the day after you accepted Christ living a holy life. But also, don’t be surprised if he begins a work in you, too.

C. S. Lewis

C. S. Lewis, perhaps the greatest theologian of the 20th century, explains it this way. When he was a child, he often had a toothache, and he knew that if he went to his mother, she would give him something which would deaden the pain for that night and let him get to sleep. But, Lewis said, he did not go to his mother–at least not till the pain became very bad. And the reason he did not go was this: He did not doubt she would give him the aspirin; but he knew she would also do something else. He knew she would take him to the dentist the next morning. He could not get what he wanted out of her without getting something more, which he didn’t want. He wanted relief from his pain; but he couldn’t get it without having his teeth set permanently right. And he knew those dentists; he knew they would start fiddling about with all sorts of other teeth which had not yet begun to ache. Our Lord, says Lewis, is like the dentists. Lots of people go to him to be cured of some particular sin. Well, he will cure it all right, but he will not stop there. That may be all you asked; but if you once call him in, he will give you the full treatment.

God’s sanctifying grace works on those problematic places…those sinful places in our lives. Conviction is part of His sanctifying work. Sure, most of us don’t wrestle with big sins…even the day after accepting Christ. You know, like murder and stealing and lying. No, what we deal with are much more subtle sins…like selfishness, jealousy, greed and envy. Those sins need transforming, too, and when we struggle with those along our journey, when they sap us of our energy and capacity to love, it’s then we need grace, and the promise of Scripture is that God gives us His grace—His sanctifying grace—to give us strength, to give us energy, to give us hope in the face of the struggle so that we move closer to the place…closer to the destination… closer to holiness

THE HARD WORK OF HOLINESS

Any relationship takes work. Whether it’s the relationship between a husband and wife, or between parents and children, friends or co-workers. If we don’t do the work to sustain relationships, they will break down and there will be distance between the persons in the relationship. In our relationship with God, it is God’s desire to make us holy. I think I’ve written before that God is not nearly as concerned about our happiness as he is about our holiness.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Romans 12: 1-2 (NIV)

The Apostle Paul, writing to the Roman Church, says “be transformed” (Romans 12: 2). That’s passive, my friends. Transformation is something that happens to us and in us. We can’t say, “I’m going to transform myself, I’m going to change.” We may give it the old college try, but we’ll most probably fail because it is God and His grace that does the work.

I hear you asking, “How?” What makes us holy? I remind us of the disciplines of the spiritual life—prayer, solitude, fasting, accountability.

Accountability? Let’s not blow by that one. Yes, accountability is a spiritual discipline. As followers of Jesus Christ, we must hold each other accountable to living the “holy” life-the Christian life. We are meant to do life together. We can’t simply watch a brother or sister in Christ who struggles with sin and not offer encouragement, correction and hope. Jesus didn’t mind challenging his disciples when their faith waned, and he certainly never backed down from challenging the Pharisees. That’s accountability at work, and it is a means of experiencing God’s sanctifying grace.

We know about bible study, too. There is another one without which no transformation will occur. It is the spiritual discipline of submission.

Submission is the spiritual discipline that frees us from the burden of always needing to get our own way. In submission we learn to hold things loosely. We also learn to diligently watch over the spirit in which we hold others— honoring them, preferring them, loving them.

Submission is not age or gender specific. We learn to follow the wise counsel of the apostle Paul to ​“be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21). In Ephesians 5, Paul is introducing the “household code” for the Christian, and he uses the analogy of husband and wife in speaking of the idea of mutual submission, but this submission is not limited to that relationship alone. Each of us is to engage in mutual submission out of reverence for Christ. 

The touchstone for the Christian understanding of submission is Jesus’s statement, ​“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me (Mark 8:34).” This call of Jesus to ​“self-denial” is simply a way of coming to understand that we do not have to have our own way. It has nothing to do with self-contempt or self-hatred. It does not mean the loss of our identity or our individuality. It means quite simply the freedom to give way to others. It means to hold the interests of others above our own. It means freedom from self-pity and self-absorption. 

Indeed, to save our life is to lose it; to lose our life for Christ’s sake is to save it (see Mark 8:35). The cross is the ultimate symbol of submission. ​Again, the Apostle Paul writes, “And being found in human form, [Jesus] humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross” (Phil 2:7 – 8).

Jesus didn’t just die a “cross death.” He lived a “cross life” of daily submission to God the Father. We, too are called to this constant, everyday ​“cross life” of submission. It is as we submit to the Holy Spirit that He does His transforming work in us and we grow in holiness by His sanctifying grace. 

A man and woman had been married for more than 60 years. They had shared everything. They had talked about everything. They had kept no secrets from each other, except that the little old woman had a shoe box in the top of her closet that she had cautioned her husband never to open or ask her about.

For all of these years, he had never thought about the box, but one day, the little old woman got very sick, and the doctor said she would not recover.

In trying to sort out their affairs, the little old man took down the shoe box and took it to his wife’s bedside.

She agreed that it was time that he should know what was in the box. When he opened it, he found two crocheted dolls and a stack of money totaling $95,000.

He asked her about the contents. “When we were to be married,” she said, “my grandmother told me the secret of a happy marriage was to never argue. She told me that if I ever got angry with you, I should just keep quiet and crochet a doll.”

The little old man was so moved; he had to fight back tears. Only two precious dolls were in the box. She had only been angry with him two times in all those years of living and loving. He almost burst with happiness.

“Honey,” he said, “that explains the dolls, but what about all of this money? Where did it come from?”

“Oh,” she said. “That’s the money I made from selling the dolls.” 

Day after day, year after year, life happens and we make the daily choice to submit to the other, and we wake up forty, fifty years later and the love has grown deeper and more meaningful, and we discover our life in the other. Ultimately, the other for the disciple of Jesus, is Jesus Himself. We love Him and we love like Him. That is holiness. That is God’s sanctifying grace at work.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Click here for the video version of today’s blog…

Just Trying to Make a Point…

Last Sunday was Easter Sunday. I thought I had a pretty good sermon. I had three points (which some folks argue is two too many!), and I thought I was well prepared to make all three points. I was wrong. I did a terrible job making my third point (judge for yourself by clicking here), so I figured I’d use this space to make the point I wanted to make Sunday.

I should have known it was not going to be a good day for preaching when I mysteriously turned a six foot white rabbit into a six foot white monkey in my opening illustration. It was pretty much down hill from there. Oh, the rabbit that mysteriously became a monkey was the pooka from the movie Harvey, starring Jimmy Stewart as Elwood P. Dowd. The premise of the sermon was a play off one line in the film–“the evening wore on” (See the clip here). Mark in his gospel uses a turn of phrase that is (to me) equally compelling–“just at sunrise” (Mark 16: 1-8).

The point? The sunrise (the resurrection) overcomes the darkness…of sin with the promise of forgiveness, of death with the promise of our resurrection, and of fear with the promise of eternal life. It was the last point where I failed to make my point (not counting the whole rabbit/monkey affair).

Here is what I said:

As the evening wore on, the darkness of death would also shadow the promise of eternal life, but just at sunrise the joy comes. The 24-hour news cycle is killing us. We hear the news, see the Facebook feeds and watch in amazement as the culture continues its steep decline. The evening appears to go on endlessly. We long for the sunrise. We wonder when will the night be over.

Are you looking for a sunrise? Turn off CNN and Fox News. Take a break from scrolling your Facebook feed, and pick up a bible. Open its pages and pray. There you’ll meet the risen Jesus, and you’ll experience the sunrise, and you’ll know a hope that never disappoints.

James Moore tells the story when The Saturday Evening Post ran a cartoon showing a man about to be rescued after he had spent a long time ship-wrecked on a tiny deserted island. The sailor in charge of the rescue team stepped onto the beach and handed the man a stack of newspapers.

“Compliments of the Captain,” the sailor said. “He would like you to glance at the headlines to see if you’d still like to be rescued!”     

Sometimes the headlines do scare us. There are times we feel evil is winning, but then along comes Easter, to remind us that there is no grave deep enough, no seal imposing enough, no stone heavy enough, no evil strong enough to keep Christ in the grave. God keeps his promises. We can’t always see it until the sunrise.

Maybe it wasn’t a bad point, but the point I really wanted to make is that the darkness of fear has overshadowed our deep theology surrounding death itself. If nothing else, the past year has shown that the church’s theology of death doesn’t extend much past the point of dying. I do have to be careful how I say this. It could too easily be politicized, and that is not my intention, at all.

It’s just that I’ve watched with some amazement over the past year as many “followers of Christ” acted as though death was absolutely the worst thing that could happen. Death, for a believer, is not the end. This life…this earthly life…isn’t all there is. The resurrection (Easter) is our reminder of the promise of eternal life.

We say in the Apostle’s Creed that we believe “…in the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.” The doctrine of eternal life is historic, orthodox Christian theology. Because of Easter we do not face death with fear, but with peace and with an assurance that Christ waits for us just beyond the veil that separates this life from the next one. Or, so the Apostle Paul taught the Corinthian church that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8).

It was also the Apostle Paul who shared his own inner conflict with the church at Philippi:

20 For I fully expect and hope that I will never be ashamed, but that I will continue to be bold for Christ, as I have been in the past. And I trust that my life will bring honor to Christ, whether I live or die. 21 For to me, living means living for Christ, and dying is even better. 22 But if I live, I can do more fruitful work for Christ. So I really don’t know which is better. 23 I’m torn between two desires: I long to go and be with Christ, which would be far better for me. 24 But for your sakes, it is better that I continue to live.

25 Knowing this, I am convinced that I will remain alive so I can continue to help all of you grow and experience the joy of your faith. 

Philippians 1: 20 – 25

Yes, I know that “eternal life” is more quality of life than quantity of life. I know eternal life is living a Christ-centered life now, but even acknowledging that fact should never diminish our understanding of the glory we shall one day share with Jesus Christ, Himself.

Embracing a broader theology of death doesn’t compel us to seek to become martyrs, nor does it cause us to take foolish chances with the gift that is this life, but it should free us from cowering in fear of death’s approach. The reality is that the death rate is 100%. If we live long enough everyone of us will die. And, we all know there are times when death does, in fact, come as a friend. The question becomes will we face death with confidence, hope and faith, or will we do so in the darkness of fear?

If we live long enough everyone of us will die.

Me? I’m going to chose to live in the confident expectation of eternal life because “just at sunrise,” hope dawned. Yes, I’m going to live today for Jesus. I’m going to love Him, and I’m going to love my neighbor, and by God’s grace, I’m going to love my enemy. I’m not going to hasten death (at least not intentionally), but I’m not going to live in fear of it, either.

It was April Fool’s Day 2007 and Vanessa and I had just dropped our daughters off for youth group at the church. We decided we needed our favorite indulgence, so we headed to the local Dairy Queen for a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup Blizzard. We had made our turn onto the Main Street of our town and as we slowed to turn into the parking lot of the Dairy Queen, I looked in my rearview mirror and saw a car quickly approaching. I shouted to Vanessa, “Hold on, they’re going to hit us!”

Hit us, they did. I’m told by folks who witnessed the event that my truck flipped four times into the parking lot of the Dairy Queen. Thankfully, Vanessa and I escaped relatively unscathed with the exception of a few scrapes and bruises, but I told Vanessa later that as we were making those flips the only thought I had was, “Death ain’t no big deal.” I’ve since thought, “That’s the most expensive ice cream I never had!”

I share that story not arrogantly, but confidently…confident in the power of the resurrection of Jesus Christ in whom I believe. That’s the point I was trying to make. I’ll not say it’s the whole point of Easter, but it is certainly one of the main points of it. And, it’s not to say that death is not a big deal. It is a big deal, but for the believer, it’s not the only deal, nor is it necessarily the worst deal.

I’m still not sure why I didn’t make the point better on Sunday. Maybe it was the rabbit that threw me off my game…or the monkey. Hopefully, I’ve made the point better here, but if not, there’s always next Easter.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Thinking Out Loud…

In the midst of Holy Week, with Lent winding down, I’m contemplating the season in which I consciously chose not to “give up” anything for Lent. No, the season didn’t begin with me receiving ashes. I didn’t chose to fast, or refrain from eating meat on Friday. I gotta’ confess…I don’t feel like I’ve missed that much in opting out of any particular Lenten observance. You may argue, therein lies the problem.

The observance of Lent hasn’t historically been a Protestant thing. I never knew of Lent in the church where I grew up. It wasn’t until I entered seminary that I was challenged to “observe a holy Lent,” as the United Methodist Book of Worship extended the invitation. I sought desperately to learn what this “holy Lent” was all about. It was more pronounced by the fact that in Junction City, KY, where I served as pastor during seminary that the Roman Catholic Church was literally next door. Yet, it was all still new to me.

I suppose it’s a good thing that seminary opened to door to all things Lenten because my first post-seminary appointment was in Morgan City, LA. Does anyone know where Morgan City, LA is located? That’s right. Deep in the heart of cajun, heavily Roman Catholic south Louisiana. There, almost everyone observed Lent. Sit down restaurants in Morgan City? During Lent you wouldn’t find meat on the menu on Friday. Catholic churches would have fish-fry fund-raisers every Friday. Lent was a real thing. I’ve sought to observe a “holy Lent” ever since.

Honestly, as I anticipate the coming of Easter Sunday, I think more about Christ’s call to new life, and not just to new life, but to a holy life. Too often, in my observances of the Lenten season, my anticipation for Easter was that I could have coffee once again, or re-engage with social media, or have a big, old juicy steak on Friday evening. It was about getting through Lent to celebrate what I could do once again. It was about going back to the old life, not living into the fullness of the new life.

I suppose it is for me that the Lord hasn’t called me to observe a “holy Lent,” but rather to observe a “holy life.” I rather believe the Lord has been calling me to instill the practices that constitute a holy Lent into my life throughout the year, not just for a season. It might just be that practicing fasting regularly (which John Wesley did, by the way) will take me deeper into the life of a disciple.

Perhaps I’m just over-thinking things here. Perhaps I’m convicted that I didn’t observe Lent this year. Maybe that’s what really has me thinking out loud. Perhaps it’s just that it’s Tuesday and I should be writing a blog and I couldn’t think of anything else to write about. I’m not sure what it is, but I am sure that if a “holy Lent” doesn’t lead to a “holy life,” then it’s been a wasted Lent, and I hope none of us have a wasted Lent.

Maybe I shouldn’t think out loud so much. Maybe I should just focus more on Easter. Yeah, that’s probably what I should do.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Jesus Needs Your Ass…Again!

So, this Sunday is Palm Sunday. Because I have several things going on this week, and in honor of Palm Sunday, I’m digging back into the archives of my previous blog, theunexpectedds.com for a replay of one of the most read blogs from that site. This post originally appeared March 21, 2013. Eight years seems like a generation ago. I’ve made a few edits, but enjoy the repeat! 😉

It really is dawning on me that I have to start preaching again every Sunday. I’m preaching this Sunday, and I’ve returned again to the lectionary to begin preparations. It should be easy, shouldn’t it? After all, it’s Palm Sunday. But, then again…it’s Palm Sunday. How does one remain fresh on a passage of Scripture that is preached every year at this same time. What is God saying to us this year that He hasn’t said for over two thousand years? Yes, I feel the pain of all my sisters and brothers who are busy preparing for their Palm Sunday sermon.

I have often sought to title my sermon and have the title serve as the “big idea” of the sermon. I try to let the Scripture guide me to the point of the message and then formulate a title around that point. That’s what I’ve been trying to do this week (while spending long hours in the Cabinet room dealing with appointments) and it’s a little more difficult because it’s Palm Sunday.

There is rich fodder in Luke 19:28-40. Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem for the final week of his earthly ministry is filled with imagery for good sermon titles, and points to make. Of course, there is the whole matter of expectations. The crowd had their expectations of Jesus. The disciples had their expectations of Jesus. The Pharisees had their expectations of Jesus. Jesus had his own expectations of what the week ahead was to be like, and he was the only one who knew what lay at the end of the week.

Imagine how our lives would be different if we expected that next week would be our last. I am reminded of what Steve Jobs said after he discovered he was dying with cancer: “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.”

Yeah. I could do something with that. I might title it “Expecting the Unexpected” or “What Did You Expect?” That could work.

I might make something out of the whole idea of Jesus as Messiah. After all, that’s what this whole scene is about, isn’t it? I mean donkeys and palm branches take us back to prophetic readings in Zechariah and the Psalms that deal with the Messiah. Jesus was making a great proclamation by choosing to enter Jerusalem this way. We could talk about that, and I could have a title like “A New Kind of King.”

Let’s see…there’s the issue of Jesus crying. How about “From Cheers to Tears”?

Or, Jesus talking to the Pharisees about the rocks crying out in praise. Maybe “The First True Rock Star”?

I think what I really like is the part about Jesus, his disciples and the donkey. That’s an interesting account. Jesus simply sends his disciples to get the colt. “Go over there and get it. You’ll know it when you see it.” And, the disciples go, and sure enough they find the donkey, and sure enough, the owners asks the disciples, “What are you doing with my ass?” I can imagine the disciples’ response being, “The Lord needs your ass.”

Well, now, that’s a loaded question, and the response is equally as loaded. I can probably get a lot of mileage out of this point. Do we all have an ass Jesus can use? Not quite sure how the folks this Sunday would respond when they show up and the title of the sermon is printed across the bulletin “Jesus Needs Your Ass.” I suspect it would be somewhat akin to the reaction of the Pharisees when Jesus came riding into town that day. Hm? Maybe I’m on to something here.

This is a confusing scene for us who live in 21st century North America. Seriously, think of it this way. Two guys walk up to your garage, jump in your brand new Ford F-150, start it up and begin to drive away. You look at them and ask, “What are you doing with my truck?” One of the guys responds, “The Lord needs it,” and you just look dumbfounded as they drive away. If you’re like me, I’m calling the police to report a stolen vehicle. Not these owners on this day.

So why would they let the disciples take the donkey? Well, there might be this whole hospitality thing going on. Remember, it’s the beginning of the Passover week, and the city is teeming with activity. Travelers from all over the ancient world are making their way to Jerusalem. Hospitality was a big thing in 1st century eastern culture. To be known as inhospitable was one of the worst things you could be. To lend the donkey was seen simply as a way to help another.

Another reason may be pride on the part of the owners. Jesus was in town. I don’t think there would have been too many folks in Bethany or Bethphage that would not have known who Jesus was. Remember again, that it was only a couple days earlier that Jesus was in town doing a little thing like raising a guy named Lazarus from the dead. Recall the scene from John 11…there are a lot of people who witnessed that miracle, and word got around pretty fast. Jesus had made quite the name for himself in that little miracle. He was a famous rabbi now. There would have been honor in allowing a famous rabbi to ride my donkey.

Then again, some have suggested that Jesus had pre-arranged this scene. Perhaps the animal belonged to Mary, Martha and Lazarus, and Jesus had already made preparations with them for the disciples to come get the donkey. I don’t believe this to be the case, otherwise, Luke, the historian, one who is intentional in giving us details, would have given us a clue that this was what had happened. Surely this was not simply some pre-arranged business deal on Jesus’ part.

Perhaps there’s another reason. Perhaps the key is found in the use of the term “Lord.” Perhaps the owners knew who Jesus was, and when the disciples referred to “The Lord,” there was little doubt in the owners minds that Jesus was who he claimed to be. If Jesus needed something they had, to offer it to him would be an act of devotion and love. No, it became an act of worship.

Here’s why I believe this is the case. Two significant pieces of evidence: One, no questions on the part of the owners. What questions would you and I ask? 

  • What are you doing with my donkey?
  • Who is “the Lord?”
  • How far will you take him?
  • Will you bring him back when you’re done?

Again, these are not details Luke is likely to omit. But he does.

The second significant piece of evidence Luke gives us is the telling of the story of the king and the ten servants immediately preceding this scene. Jesus tells the story of the nobleman who went away to be crowned king, but before he leaves he entrusts his silver to ten of his servants. Upon his return he calls the servants to give account of his silver. The first two return the king’s silver with interest. The third, because he was afraid of the king, simply returned what had been given to him. The story is about stewardship. 

Then, Luke gives a living example of the parable…a man with a donkey, offering what he has to the Jesus. It was an investment, and no small one at that. This was a valuable asset for the owners. Think about wealth in the 1stcentury…often measured by the ownership of livestock. The ass was referred to as a “beast of burden,” meaning it was used to transport things…it was the 1st century equivalent of a moving van. But, the ass was used for various tasks around the family farm and so it was also the equivalent of the modern day tractor. And, then, like Jesus does in today’s passage, people would use the ass as a means of transportation…the equivalent of a car. A moving van, a tractor, a car…a very valuable animal indeed, and here, Jesus commands a brand new one, one that has never been ridden. This was no small request on Jesus’ part. This was a sacrificial gift.

The ass was a gift given to Jesus to help usher in the Kingdom. This was the dawning of the Kingdom. This unknown, unnamed person probably had little clue what he was involving himself in, but he knew Jesus, and he trusted Jesus, and he gave to Jesus…and literally, he helped usher in the Kingdom. His gift changed the world.

What is Jesus asking for from us? What do we have to offer that will usher in the Kingdom? What resource is available to be utilized to literally carry Jesus down the road?

“Sometimes I get the impression that God wants me to give him something and sometimes I don’t give it because I don’t know for sure, and then I feel bad because I’ve missed my chance. Other times I know he wants something but I don’t give it because I’m too selfish. And other times, too few times, I hear him and I obey him and feel honored that a gift of mine would be used to carry Jesus to another place. And still other times I wonder if my little deeds today will make a difference in the long haul.

Maybe you have those questions, too. All of us have a donkey. You and I each have something in our lives, which, if given back to God, could, like the donkey, move Jesus and his story further down the road. Maybe you can sing or hug or program a computer or speak Swahili or write a check.

Whichever, that’s your donkey.

Whichever, your donkey belongs to him.

It really does belong to him. Your gifts are his and the donkey was his. The original wording of the instructions Jesus gave to his disciples is proof: “If anyone asks you why you are taking the donkeys, you are to say, ’Its Lord is in need.’”

Max Lucado, And the Angels Were Silent, pg. 54

Our resources, our time, our money, our talents, our jobs, our families, our homes…our lives are gift from God for God. What has been entrusted to you for Jesus to use? What ass is Jesus asking for?

Nah! I probably won’t use that title. A bit too shocking. A bit too much to leave to the imagination. A bit too much to be misconstrued. It’s a novel thought, though. Maybe it’s time we were a bit more shocking in our preaching. After all, it will be a shocking end to the week when Jesus rises from the grave.

My! My! My! The task of preaching on Palm Sunday and Holy Week. What’s a preacher to do? I suppose it’s time to live into the reality that Jesus needs my ass.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Spiritual Seeking…

There is a phenomenon happening in the West that has been given the name “spiritual seeking.” The focus of spiritual seeking is on personal experience, the sacred and the soul. There is little doubt in my mind as I reflect on the religious landscape of our nation that spiritual seeking, with its emphasis on individualism, choice, and quest for meaning is exerting profound changes on traditional religion. The Gallup Organization says that 80% of all Americans believe that an individual should arrive at his or her own beliefs independent of any church. That’s spiritual seeking with an emphasis on individualism. 

I mention spiritual seeking because we think it’s something we came up with. Long before we were spiritually seeking, God was seeking us. We who follow the tradition of John Wesley know that (or, at least we should). When we, as Wesleyans, talk about God’s grace, we see His grace made real in our lives in different ways at different stages. But, all grace is rooted in a relationship–the relationship that God desires to have with us through Jesus Christ. As Methodists in the Wesleyan tradition, we believe that God in His grace came seeking for us, and we know it as God’s prevenient grace.

Just as a reminder, grace is God’s saving acts toward us–His precious, unmerited favor. We don’t deserve it and we can’t earn it, yet God, in love, extends His mercy toward us to reconcile us to Himself–to have a relationship with Him.

That’s as it should be, right? Right! Because relationships are important to us. Vanessa and I are coming up on 40 years of marriage this year (it seems like only yesterday!). You may find this hard to believe, but Vanessa and I didn’t hit it off when we first met. We met in high school. I was the home-grown boy, and she was the new girl. Came from somewhere up north is all we knew, and she talked funny, too. She thought I was a jerk, and I probably was. After all, I was fifteen years old, and most—no, all—fifteen-year-old boys are prone to being jerks. It’s called testosterone, and it’s part of the male condition.

Ours was a relationship that started off from a distance, hard to understand with little effort put into it. But it was a relationship, nonetheless. Everyone from Oprah to Dr. Phil spend time dishing out advice on how to handle our relationships because we spend so much time trying to figure out relationships. First with our parents, then with that special someone we grow to love, then our children (especially if they are teen-agers!). Then there are neighbors, co-workers, friends and extended family.

We have so many relationships to keep straight that we almost overlook one relationship that is the most important one of all, our relationship with God. Our relationship with God often goes unnoticed until the day we come to faith in Jesus Christ, and then we go to work reading our Bible, attending church, praying and serving God. We think our relationship with God began the day we came to faith. And you might be right. Our relationship with God did begin the day we came to faith, but God’s relationship with us, now that is another matter altogether. Listen to what the prophet Isaiah said long ago as he communicates his understanding of the depth of God’s knowledge of who Isaiah was:


“Listen to me, all of you in far-off lands! The Lord called me before my birth; from within the womb he called me by name.” (Isaiah 49:1)

And the prophet Jeremiah, announcing his ministry to the nation of Israel could proclaim:


“The Lord gave me a message. He said, [5] "I knew you before I formed you in your mother’s womb. Before you were born I set you apart and appointed you as my spokesman to the world.” (Jeremiah 1:4-5)

Both of these Old Testament prophets understood that God had a relationship with them long before they were aware of it, and that fact, in its bare essence, communicates the idea of prevenient grace. Let me illustrate.

The Bible is God’s story. The earliest chapters of the Bible reveal a God who is seeking a relationship with humanity. In chapter three of Genesis, after Adam and Eve had sinned by eating of the forbidden fruit, God appeared toward evening and called out to Adam and Eve, “Where are you?” Yes, the story begins with a seeking God. God seeking humanity to reconcile us to Himself.

God’s story finds Him offering this relationship with Noah (Gen. 9: 8-13), with a nomadic livestock trader named Abram (Gen. 12: 1-3). God renewed his covenant search for the redemption of humanity with Moses after God delivered the Israelites from their Egyptian slavery (Exodus 19:3-6). God sought a man after His own heart in King David, and it was David who said, “It is my family God has chosen! Yes He has made an everlasting covenant with me. His agreement is eternal, final, sealed” (2 Sam. 23:5).

Humanity broke God’s covenant, but He continued to search. The prophet Jeremiah prophesied:


“The day will come,” says the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah. This covenant will not be like the old one I made with their ancestors...They broke that covenant, though I loved them as a husband loves his wife,” says the Lord. “But this is the covenant I will make with them...I will put my laws in their minds, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God and they will be my people...And I will forgive their wickedness and will never again remember their sins.” (Jeremiah 31:31-34)

God’s new covenant was made real for us in Jesus Christ. On the night Jesus was arrested he was gathered with his disciples. There he took the bread, blessed it, and told his disciples to eat it for it was his body. Then he took the cup of wine, and blessed it, and with the cup said to his disciples, “Drink this cup, for this is my blood, which seals the covenant between God and His people. It is poured out to forgive the sins of many” (Matt. 26:28).

That’s right, God took the initiative in the relationship with His creation, and He, through His Son, Jesus Christ, takes the initiative in His relationship with us. When we were powerless, God moved in His Son Jesus Christ so we could experience what the Apostle Paul calls “friendship with God.” It is through a wonderful thing called grace that we experience God’s friendship. And we thought it all started when we “got saved.”

The idea of prevenient grace can be summed up by saying, “God has been busy searching for us in order to have a relationship with us.” One of my seminary professors defined “prevenient grace” as “grace that goes before.” In other words, prevenient grace is God reaching out to us even before we know it. It is a grace that prevents us from moving so far from God that we cannot respond to God’s offer of love.

Prevenient grace is seen in the most quoted verse of the Bible–John 3:16—“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosever would believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” Jesus himself said, “I come to seek and save that which is lost” (Luke 19:10). Our response to God’s seeking is our response of faith. Prevenient grace is God working in our lives from the moment we are conceived until that special moment when we, by faith, receive God’s free gift of salvation.

The experience of God’s prevenient grace may be different for all of us. The experience of prevenient grace can come through friends, family members, parents or grandparents, even events may serve as vessels of God’s grace. Prevenient grace is also made real through the church as the church faithfully administers the Word and the Sacraments. Every sermon preached, every song sung, every time the elements of communion are received, every time a person is baptized, it is a testimony to the fact that God is seeking a relationship with us. The Holy Spirit is active in and through all these elements to make God real in our lives. 

There is a profound reason we Methodists baptize infants. The sacrament of baptism is our acknowledgement, our assent of faith that we believe in prevenient grace. We proclaim that God is at work in this child’s life even before he/she is aware. It is not an acknowledgement of salvation. No, we must respond in faith to God’s call, but we affirm the presence of God’s grace.

The Holy Spirit also speaks directly to our own hearts and minds as we face life every day. Even our conscience becomes a tool of the Holy Spirit in making us aware of God’s presence and calling. The Holy Spirit courts us, woos us, encourages us, calls us, but never forces us, to repent, turn to God and receive eternal life.

Max Lucado, in No Wonder They Call Him the Savior, tells the story of Maria and her daughter Christina. Longing to leave her poor Brazilian neighborhood, Christina wanted to see the world. Discontent living at home having only a pallet on the floor, a washbasin, and a wood-burning stove, she dreamed of a better life in the city. 

One morning she ran away, breaking her mother’s heart. Her mother knew what life on the streets would be like for her young, attractive daughter, so Maria quickly packed to go find her daughter. On her way to the bus stop, she went to a drugstore to get one last thing—pictures. She sat in the photograph booth, closed the curtain, and spent all the money she could on pictures of herself. With her purse full of small black-and-white photos, she got on the next bus to Rio de Janeiro. 

Maria knew Christina had no way of earning money. She also knew that her daughter was too stubborn to give up. Maria began her search. Bars, hotels, nightclubs, any place with the reputation for street walkers or prostitutes. At each place she left her picture–taped on a bathroom mirror, tacked to a hotel bulletin board, or fastened to a corner phone booth. On the back of each photo she wrote a note. It wasn’t too long before Maria’s money and pictures ran out, and Maria had to go home. The tired mother cried as the bus began its long journey back to her small village. 

A few weeks later, Christina was coming down the stairs in a seedy hotel. Her young face was tired. Her brown eyes no longer danced with youth but spoke of pain and fear. Her laughter was broken. Her dream had become a nightmare. A thousand times she had longed to trade all those countless beds for her secure pallet. And yet the little village seemed too far away. As she reached the bottom of the stairs, her eyes noticed a familiar face. She looked again, and there on the lobby mirror was a small picture of her mother. Christina’s eyes burned and her throat tightened as she walked across the room and removed the small photo. Written on the back Maria had written this: “Whatever you have done, whatever you have become, it doesn’t matter. Please come home.” 

And Christina went home.

God is the same way. He wants us to come home. It doesn’t matter what we’ve done. It doesn’t matter what we’ve become. We can always come home to Him. It is like Maria, reaching out for her daughter even when her daughter didn’t realize it. 

It is like God reaching out to us while we are living a life of sin and we are lost and yet, Christ is there, reaching, longing, desiring to bring us home.

It is prevenient grace. Like Vanessa and I began a courtship over 40 years ago, so God began a courtship with us long before we were aware. Like Isaiah and Jeremiah, even from our mother’s womb, He called us. Are you “spiritually seeking”? Good, there is a God who loves you who is spiritually seeking you, too!

Until next time, keep looking up…

My Word for the Day…

It’s Tuesday! That means I have to write something. No, there’s no law that says I do, and it’s only been a few weeks since I didn’t write on a Tuesday (I wrote on Wednesday that week), but writing has become a discipline for me, so it is a way for me to hold myself accountable. Of course, if you’re going to write, it helps to have something to write about. Paraphrasing an old preacher: “It’s better to have something to write than to have to write something.” Yet, I write for the sake of writing. I suppose this is your invitation to join me in my scattered thoughts.

TRUST?

There is one word on my mind today that I really should write about. That word? Trust. Actually, what’s on my mind in the trust that is lacking in our world today. It bothers me. Hardly anyone trusts anyone else these days. Democrats don’t trust Republicans. That’s fine. Republicans return the favor. Average everyday citizens don’t trust the government. That’s fine, too. The government pretty much returns the favor.

I could expand the thought to include the lack of trust that exists in the religious world, too. Let’s face it, the Roman Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal, the split in the Anglican communion and the soon-coming split in the United Methodist Church has created an environment where trust has been greatly diminished in the venerable institution that is called “The Church.” I could write more on the lack of trust in the church, but it wouldn’t be helpful in restoring trust (it might actually hurt), and as disciples of Jesus Christ, we’ve been committed the ministry of reconciliation, so I’ll just move on from the topic.

Of course, there is a growing distrust of our educational institutions, as well. Let’s see? What are people distrustful of? “Progressive” curriculum. Parents who chose to home-school. Teacher’s unions. The student loan debacle. School closings during the pandemic. I don’t know, these seem to only be scratching the surface of where people are displaying their mistrust of the educational institution.

I could probably go on, but I hope you get my point. Trust, or the lack thereof, is on my mind this morning, but I refuse to let distrust dominate my thoughts today. Rather, I’m going to chose another word–grace. Why? Because as I ponder the trust deficit among us, I am concerned about the part I’ve played in increasing that deficit, and I am reminded of how much I need grace.

GRACE

I am going to chose this morning to allow my mind to be drawn to what has been called the Magna Carta of grace:

     8 God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. 10 For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.

Ephesians 2: 8 – 10 (New Living Translation

Grace, God’s grace is the only thing that will save us, and I need it in abundance, not only today, but everyday, so I’ll focus on His grace today, rather than my distrust. God’s grace can take a heinous murderer and turn him into the world’s greatest evangelist. That’s powerful stuff right there!

Need I remind you of the Apostle Paul? When the church was in its infancy, Paul was a Pharisee threatened by the insurgency being created by these rabble rousers who followed an itinerant rabbi put to death by the Roman authorities. Paul was so zealous to squash this “movement” that he went and offered himself as a bounty hunter to the religious authorities so he could hunt down these people who followed “The Way.”

He was successful, too. The Book of Acts tells us a young man named Saul was consenting at the death of Stephen. But, we also know Paul as the person who would pen 13 of the 27 books of the New Testament. We also know Paul as the person most responsible for modern Christian theology, and we know Paul as the person most responsible for the spread of Christianity into Europe. This Paul, would place God’s grace at the center of his theology, and thus it became the center of ours, too.

It would be really easy to define grace again, but rather than do that, I invite you to click here. Suffice it to say that for reasons I don’t fully understand, yet rooted in the nature of God, God gives Himself to us, attaches Himself to us, and acts to rescue us. Because of His mercy and love, God saves us, and that saving is a result of God’s grace. If we were to read Ephesians 2: 1 – 7, we would see that Paul is clear—wrath should have come, but grace comes instead. The gospel of grace says God gives Himself to us without any preconditions or complaints, and if so, then we are given significance, and we find our value in God’s relationship to us. The attention is not on us, though, but upon the One who loves us so deeply. 

THE CHALLENGE OF GRACE

The gospel of grace challenges us. It challenges us by the very fact that a murderer’s life can be changed. We applaud the Apostle Paul for the transformation that God did in his life. Our trust in the gospel of grace wanes though when we think about Jeffery Dahmer (caution–graphic material). Dahmer was a child molesting, cannibalistic, serial killer responsible for raping, murdering, dismembering and consuming 17 men and boys. After his arrest and conviction Dahmer had, by all accounts, an authentic conversion to Christianity. He experienced the gospel of grace, and that makes us incredibly uncomfortable.

Why are we surprised that God could do that for Jeffery Dahmer? He does it for us, doesn’t he? J. D. Walt, who was Dean of the Chapel at Asbury Seminary for a while, expresses this sentiment in a recent devotional:

“Grace is incomprehensibly comforting yet incomparably devastating. Grace kills the human made economy of performance and merit. Grace breaks down every good thought (and every bad thought) I have about myself and replaces them with God’s good thought about me alone. He does the same for Jeffrey Dahmer and Saul of Tarsus. In and of myself, I bring before Almighty God the same merit that they do– which is none. If I can enter on these terms, I will receive the very same gift they do– which is everything. If I can’t exchange my nothing for God’s everything, just like everybody else, Jesus may as well be speaking to me when he says, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you’.”

J. D. Walt, The Seedbed Daily Text

There is so much more I want to write about grace, but my time is short this morning. I’m simply going to put distrust out of my mind and focus on the wonderful gift God has given me (and you, too!)–the gift of grace. I need to catch a glimpse of the Kingdom of God this morning. By grace, I’ll see it. I have to trust Him. I have no other choice. May I invite you to do the same?

Until next time, keep looking up…

Life’s Greatest Challenge…

I’ve spent the past few weeks learning to love again. I say again. It may be for the first time, but I rather hope that it’s simply a reset of love. I have learned that love from the biblical perspective—that sacrificial, self-denying love—is first, the greatest characteristic that is displayed by those called disciples of Christ. I’ve also learned that love is also the greatest commandment as Jesus himself affirmed that we are to love God and love others. What I’m learning more and more is that love—transformative, life-giving love—is also the greatest challenge I will face as a disciple of Jesus.

Jesus tells me as much in the Sermon on the Mount of Matthew 5 – 7. Most times, it’s enough to let scripture speak for itself:

43 “You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. 44 But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! 45 In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. 46 If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. 47 If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that. 48 But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.

Matthew 5: 43 – 48 (New Living Translation)

The Transformative Power of Love

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has called his disciples together and said, “Come here and sit down. Let me tell you what life will look like as my disciples.” Jesus is seeking to give his disciples a new worldview—not so much new as corrected because Jesus wasn’t making new laws for his disciples but correcting some false assumptions about the law as it had evolved through the years.

Jesus would say to them, “You’ve heard it said…,” yet it’s like Jesus was recalling other parts of the law—parts like Leviticus 19:18–“Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against a fellow Israelite, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” Or, perhaps Exodus 23: 4 -5–“If you come upon your enemy’s ox or donkey that has strayed away, take it back to its owner. If you see that the donkey of someone who hates you has collapsed under its load, do not walk by. Instead, stop and help.” Jesus was saying, “Let’s remember what the Law really says, and I remind you that we love everyone—even our enemies.”

Hard words, indeed! Love God? Sure. Love our neighbors? Working on that one. But, love our enemy? How do we do that? More importantly, why would we do that? Because Jesus knew that love–biblical love–is the most transformative force in the universe.

A little girl was given candy by her friend. She got home to show her mother, and mother said, “Your friend was really sweet.”

“Yes,” said the little girl, “she gave me more, but I gave some away.”

Mom said, “Who did you give it too?”

The daughter said, “I gave it to a girl who pushes me off the sidewalk and makes faces at me.”

“Why in the world would you do that,” the mother asked?

“Because I thought it would help her know I want to be kind to her, and maybe then she won’t be so unkind to me,” the daughter replied.

Perhaps Solomon knew something about the transformative power of love when he wrote “If your enemies are hungry, give them food to eat. If they are thirsty, give them water to drink. You will heap burning coals of shame on their heads, and the Lord will reward you” (Proverbs 25: 21 – 22).

I’ve learned that love–any love–requires an emotional engagement. If I love God with all my heart and soul, that requires emotional engagement. If I would love my neighbor, I must be moved with compassion (or pity), and that’s an emotions. If I would love my enemies, it’s really no different. It’s likely only to be that I hate them, but guess what? Hate is an emotion! The truth is our engagement may not necessarily be a positive one, but at least it’s a starting place.

Love is a Decision

Beyond connecting on the emotional level, I’ve also learned that love is a decision of the will. It is a decision of the will that transforms the heart. It is a victory of over our rational and our natural instincts. In Jesus’ day, the natural and rational had taken over the law. The Law was used for revenge and retribution. If we were to read the surrounding passages of scripture we’d hear all that “eye for an eye” and “tooth for a tooth” talk. That’s our natural inclination. Jesus wants to elevate us to a different level. He wants to elevate his disciples to God’s level, and he knew our love for even our enemies would do just that.

Corrie ten Boom shares this true story:

     “It was at a church service in Munich that I saw him, a former S.S. man who had stood guard at the shower room door in the processing center at Ravensbruck. He was the first of our actual jailers that I had seen since that time. And suddenly it was all there – the roomful of mocking men, the heaps of clothing, Betsie’s pain-blanched face.

     He came up to me as the church was emptying, beaming and bowing. “How grateful I am for your message, Fraulein.” He said. “To think that, as you say, He has washed my sins away!” His hand was thrust out to shake mine. And I, who had preached so often to the people in Bloemendaal the need to forgive, kept my hand at my side.

     Even as the angry, vengeful thoughts boiled through me, I saw the sin of them. Jesus Christ had died for this man; was I going to ask for more? Lord Jesus, I prayed, forgive me and help me to forgive him. I tried to smile, I struggled to raise my hand. I could not. I felt nothing, not the slightest spark of warmth or charity. And so again I breathed a silent prayer. Jesus, I prayed, I cannot forgive him. Give me Your forgiveness.

     As I took his hand the most incredible thing happened. From my shoulder along my arm and through my hand a current seemed to pass from me to him, while into my heart sprang a love for this stranger that almost overwhelmed me. And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world’s healing hinges, but on His. When He tells us to love our enemies, He gives, along with the command, the love itself.”

Corrie ten Boom, The Hiding Place

The love that loves our enemies is not a natural thing. It is a supernatural thing. It comes only from God, yet it comes when we act in obedience to his call on our lives. See, we don’t have to like it to be faithful, we just have to do it.

If love is a decision of the will, I have to make three decisions to be obedient to Jesus. First, I must decide to bless my enemies. That’s how Luke’s gospel records this account of the Sermon on the Mount. In Luke 6: 27 – 28 (NIV), Jesus says, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” In this same sermon, Jesus talks about “turning the other cheek,” and he introduces the Golden Rule of doing unto others as you would have them do to you. That’s what we do when we decide to bless our enemies.

Robert E. Lee was asked what he thought of a fellow Confederate officer who had made derogatory remarks about Lee. General Lee rated him to be a rather satisfactory fellow. Perplexed, the man who asked Lee the question said, “General, I guess you don’t know what he’s been saying about you?”

“I know,” Lee responded, “but, you asked my opinion of him, not his opinion of me.”

The second decision I need to make is to pray for my enemies. I am thoroughly convinced that I can’t pray for a person and hate them at the same time. It’s impossible. William Barclay says, “The surest way of killing bitterness is to pray for the man we are tempted to hate.” While we think prayer changes things, more times than not the thing it changes is us. I must decide to bless my enemies, and pray for my enemies.

Finally, I need to decide to forgive my enemies. Forgiveness, like love itself, is a choice. As Corrie Ten Boom gave testimony, forgiveness was transformative, not only for the relationship between her and the guard, but inside herself. Why is that so? Because forgiveness is what makes us “perfect.” The word Matthew uses for perfect is teleios, and it doesn’t mean without flaw or blemish, as we so often use it in English.

While we think prayer changes things, more times than not the thing it changes is us.

The word Matthew uses means “brought to completion, mature, full-grown.” We are made in God’s image. We are made to be like God, and when we love our enemies we are acting like children of God.  The Bible teaches that we realize our full humanity only by becoming more and more like Christ. The one thing that distinguishes us and makes us like God is the love which never ceases to care for people, no matter what they do to us. We realize our humanity, we become perfect, when we learn to forgive as God forgives and love as God loves.

Bambalang

That’s exactly what the people in the village of Bambalang, in Cameroon, Africa discovered. Pastor Pius Mbahlegue tells the story in March, 2011, the village had a dispute with a neighboring village over traditional burial rights. The rival village attacked. 300 homes were burned, and 3,000 people were displaced. The residents of Bambalang were unable to return to their village until the Cameroon military came and drove the rival villagers out.

The Bambalang residents returned and found nothing left. Even their rice field had been burned. The attack began on a Sunday and lasted through the following Thursday. As the villagers returned to worship the following Sunday, it was the very day planned to dedicate the Gospel of Luke which had been translated into their native language. As the residents read from Luke’s Gospel, they came to chapter 6:27 and read of loving your enemies.

One resident, upon reading the words in her own language said it was like a dream, that the words were for her and for her village, and with that the villagers made the decision to overcome hate with love, and to love the rival villagers with the love of Christ. Thus, began a transformation in them, and in their relationship with the rival village. As one villager said, “I can’t hate them and not forgive them because I would want people to forgive me.” 

I’ve learned a lot as I’ve sought to reset the love in my life. I’ve learned that love is, indeed, hard work. It’s hard work to love God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength. And, it’s hard work to love my neighbor as myself. As hard work as those two loves are, there is no harder work than loving my enemy. It is, perhaps, this life’s greatest challenge.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Learning to Love (Part 2)…

There is a passage in 1 John that haunts me often: “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen” (1 John 4:20). It haunts me in light of the second part of the “Great Commandment” that Jesus stated in response to a lawyer’s question in Mark 12:

28 One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” 29 “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

Mark 12: 28 – 31

I know that I love that which I’m passionate about, and as I’ve contemplated the first part of Jesus’s great commandment, I pray that I’m passionate about God, and that to love Him passionately is to desire Him, to devote ourselves to Him, and to discipline our lives to be with him through windows of grace like prayer, fasting, bible study, worship and others.

There is, then, this second part that troubles me–love my neighbor as myself. As Jesus gives the commandment, it seems as though the two are eternally woven together, that there cannot be the one without the other. It seems as the Apostle John views them the same way.

The starting place, perhaps, is to love myself. That seems a bit selfish on its face. Love myself? That seems too deep a subject to delve into in this blog. There would be too much navel gazing that would, in fact, become self-centered. Regardless, we are commanded to love our neighbor. Let me focus on that one…

Jesus Tells a Story

The thought makes me like another lawyer Jesus encountered. We read that story in Luke’s gospel. You can read the encounter here, but let me offer the Lynn paraphrase. We know it as the story of the Good Samaritan. Jesus tells the story to a lawyer who wanted to know how to receive eternal life, and he answered his own question with a reciting of the Jewish Shema of Deuteronomy 6—“love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind.” Then, he adds, “love your neighbor as yourself.” Luke adds in verse 29 that the lawyer wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”

He wanted to justify himself. After all, you really don’t expect me to love everyone, do you? If we want to justify what we do, we can simply define people and circumstances using our own definition and thereby absolve ourselves from any guilt for not doing what we knew we should do, or for doing something we knew we shouldn’t. We’ve all got a little bit of lawyer in us, don’t we?

In response, Jesus tells the story: A Jewish man was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho and was attacked by bandits. They beat him up, stripped him and left him for dead beside the road. We could stop right there and say the man had no business going from Jerusalem to Jericho alone. It was a road known to be frequented by bandits. See, it was the man’s own fault. He should have been smarter. He took a risk and the risk didn’t pay off. Certainly, that’s what those who stood around Jesus listening that day would have thought initially. It’s the man’s own fault. How often have we seen someone broken and beat up by life, and we thought, “Well, they made an unwise decision. They made their bed, now they have to sleep in it?” Probably, much too often.

Jesus continues by saying a Jewish priest came along, but saw the man and passed by on the other side of the road. Next, a Levite (or Temple assistant) came by, and likewise went around the man on the other side of the road. The good Jews listening to the story would have said, “Yup. That’s what I would have done.”

Neither a priest nor a Levite could sully themselves with the blood of a beaten man. It would have rendered them unclean and they would not be fit for service in the Temple. They would have to go through a drawn-out cleansing process, and it simply was not worth the effort. They made a prioritized decision. They had more pressing business to which to attend.

Then, Jesus says, a dreaded (Jesus’s word–not mine) Samaritan came by. Jesus is setting his listeners up, and he’s also setting up this lawyer. Samaritan’s were hated by Jews, and no good Jew, would want a Samaritan to help even if they were lying in a ditch dying. That’s exactly what the listeners and the lawyer are thinking, but Jesus’ story reminds us our neighbor isn’t necessarily who we think it is.

So, this Samaritan sees the man, and Jesus says, “he felt deep pity.” So, the Samaritan kneels, soothes and bandages the wounds. He puts the man on his donkey, takes him to an inn and cares for him. The next day, he offers the innkeeper money to take care of the man. He does, after all, have to go on about his business, but he tells the innkeeper, “if you have any other expenses beyond what I’ve paid you, when I come back, I’ll settle up with you.”

Jesus asks the lawyer, “Now who was a neighbor to the man attacked by bandits?”

The lawyer replied, “The one who showed mercy.”

Jesus said, “Yup. Now, go and do the same.”

Love IS Emotional

So, what can I learn from this encounter about showing love to my neighbor? First, I can acknowledge that love engages me on an emotional level. Certainly, that’s true with romantic love, but I’m reminded that we’re not talking about romantic love. We’re talking about “agape” love—that sacrificial, self-denying kind of love. Yet, even agape love engages us on an emotional level.

The Samaritan, Jesus said, “felt deep pity.” In other words, he felt compassion. Pity and compassion are both emotions, so love is emotional, but it isn’t ONLY emotional. It is the emotion, the compassion that motivates us to act, so even though it may be emotional, it becomes tangible. Compassion was the Samaritan’s motivation, and it had nothing to do with the fact the man should not have ventured down the Jericho road alone. We think, for some reason, that because a person has made a decision that led to bad consequences that we should have less compassion for them. Nothing could be further from the truth. If a person is broken and battered, we have a responsibility to love them the more. 

We should have compassion because Jesus had compassion on the crowds who sought him:

Jesus traveled through all the cities and villages of that area, teaching in the synagogues and announcing the Good News about the Kingdom. And wherever he went, he healed people of every sort of disease and illness. He felt great pity for the crowds, because their problems were so great and they didn’t know where to go for help. They were like sheep without a shepherd.

Matthew 9: 35-36

The NIV says, “he was moved with compassion.” Jesus, moved with compassion, healed, restored, forgave and died. He did it all for us because he loved us. What started in the heart of God as compassion, mercy and pity ended at the cross in deep love and grace, and from that came the forgiveness of our sins and the restoration of our souls.

Love IS Tangible

So, love is rooted on the emotional level, but quickly becomes tangible. If we love others, it will begin as we connect on an emotional level with others. We must remove ourselves from the center of life and feel compassion and concern for others. Else, we’ll be like the priest and the Levite. We’ll say, “I’ve got other things that demand my attention. I have my agenda. You’re not a priority right now.” To love others is to see a need and to be moved with compassion so that we desire to see lives different, better, more whole.

Emotion sustains us as we move to action. Without emotional engagement, the commitment to act will wane. Love is both emotional commitment and tangible action—the action is like that we see in the Good Samaritan. The Samaritan knelt, bandaged the wounds and carried the man to safety. The tangible act confirmed his compassion.

Love IS Sacrificial

But, this love was also sacrificial. The Samaritan had already invested his time by stopping, bandaging and carrying the man to the inn, and yes, even he took the risk of being rejected. Some Jews would rather die than have a Samaritan help them, much less touch them. It’s possible that the beaten man could have said, “Get away from me. I’ll die first!” I think, though, that only healthy people are quite so stubborn. When we’re desperately clinging to life, we’ll grasp at any straw, accept any help. The prospect of terminal circumstances changes our perspective rather quickly. Yet, rejection remains a real possibility. The lesson? We should never let our fear of rejection keep us from loving others.

We should never let our fear of rejection keep us from loving others.

The Samaritan not only sacrificed his time and energy, but he sacrificed his money, as well. He paid the innkeeper to care for the man. His money became a tool he used to demonstrate his love for others. Money is amoral. Our morals determine how we utilize the resources entrusted to us. If we ever get to the point that we see money as anything other than a tool for promoting life-transforming ministry, that’s the day our discipleship begins to die because that’s the day we turn inward and become selfish. 

Financial resources can be blessing, or they can be curse. Giving generously is a core value of a disciple of Jesus Christ. It is a means of showing our love in tangible ways. If we utilize money as a means of glorifying God, we’ll discover His blessings in ways we can only begin to imagine. But, if we grasp tightly to money in fear of losing it, we’ll discover that it will soon vanish, and we’ll be left wondering what happened, and why God seems so far away.     

One more thing I see, and that is that love is on-going. Loving others is not a one-time endeavor. Love is lived in relationship, and the Samaritan said to the inn keeper, “When I come back…” He gave money to the inn-keeper, and he had every intention of returning to check on things.

Life transformation happens in relationship. That’s why a church’s mission outreach must be more deep than broad. We can do a little good in a lot of places, but little transformation takes place, either for others or for us. Or, we can do a lot in a few places, and thereby build relationships that begin to transform the world, one relationship at a time.

I’m not sure that I’ve really learned anything about loving my neighbor as myself or not. Most days, I don’t even really know where to start, but if I’ve learned nothing else, I’ve learned maybe I need to start with the person in front of me.

Until next time, keep looking up…