Power and Purpose…

The great Methodist hymn writer, Fanny Crosby, is known for some great hymns of the church. Among those hymns are Blessed Assurance, Rescue the Perishing, Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior. Historians have noted that Crosby is responsible for over 9,000 hymns in her lifetime. That’s incredible when we remember that she was blind from the time she was six weeks old. She died in 1915 just shy of her 95th birthday, and the final verse she wrote said, “You will reach the river brink, some sweet day, bye and bye.”

Long before she penned those last words, in 1869 she penned another of her now famous hymns. That hymn resonates with me as I spend this Lent at the cross of Jesus. Hear the words of the first verse of her hymn Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross:

Jesus, keep me near the cross;

There a precious fountain,

Free to all a healing stream,

Flows from Calvary’s mountain.

“Keep me near the cross” is my prayer this Lenten season. It is near the cross that we not only see Jesus, but we hear the words he speaks from the cross. Jesus made seven statements while He hung on the cross. They were the last words of Jesus; each one has significance and meaning, and teach us something about the heart of God.

Famous Last Words

First, He said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they’re doing.” In the midst of being unjustly wronged, Jesus was still able to offer a prayer of forgiveness. Next, he interacted with two criminals being crucified beside Him. One rejected Him, the other repented and cried out to Him to save him to which Jesus responded, “You will be with me in paradise,” a wonderful word of salvation.

Then, Jesus spoke a third time from the cross. In his anguish, he looked down from the cross and saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved–the Apostle John. Here is what John recorded:

25 Standing near the cross were Jesus’ mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary (the wife of Clopas), and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus saw his mother standing there beside the disciple he loved, he said to her, “Dear woman, here is your son.” 27 And he said to this disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from then on this disciple took her into his home. (John 19: 25 – 27 NLT)

As I read these words, I make two discoveries.

The Power of a Passionate Love

The first discovery is the power of a passionate love. I see the passionate love of Jesus. Let’s remember all that happened to Jesus in the past 24 hours. He had been whipped, His back being completely torn to shreds. He had been punched repeatedly in the face. Romans had taken a crown of thorns and crushed it down upon His head. He had suffered an incredible loss of blood. He was desperately weak and thirsty. They took spikes, driving them into His wrists and feet, fastening Him to a cross, slamming it into the ground with all of His weight being held only by those spikes. He knew he was dying.

Samuel Johnson, the 18th century British author and poet said, “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Here is Jesus, hanging on the cross watching the soldiers gamble for his clothes. If there was ever a time Jesus would be justified in being selfish, it was now, but his mind turned not to himself, but to others—particularly, his mother. Jesus dying concern is for his mother.

Jesus saw his mother and said, “Woman, he is your son.” Jesus was taking care of his mother’s needs. It was his tender compassion at work, even from the cross. Joseph was likely dead, and in ancient near eastern culture widows had no means of support. It was the oldest son’s responsibility to care for his widowed mother. Jesus was doing what I’ve witnessed so many others do through 28 years of ministry. As I’ve journeyed with many through their last days the concern most expressed is not for themselves, but for the one’s they leave behind. Who will care for them? Did I leave enough for them? Will they be alright? Jesus had a deep, passionate love for his mother, and he was expressing it from the cross.

Jesus wasn’t the only one expressing a passionate love, though. So was his mother, Mary. What mother could choose to watch her son die such a gruesome and painful death? Don’t you know that with every blow of the hammer, Mary felt the nails going into Jesus’ feet and hands? Don’t you know that with every labored breath of Jesus she lost a little of her own? It was a mother’s love that kept her near the cross in the face of such pain.

A few years ago, a newspaper report out of south Florida reported of a little boy who decided to go for a swim in the lake behind his house. In a hurry to dive into the cool water, he ran out the back door, leaving behind shoes, socks, and shirt as he went.

He flew into the water, not realizing that as he swam toward the middle of the lake, an alligator was swimming toward the shore. His mother in the house was looking out the window saw the two as they got closer and closer together. In utter fear, she ran toward the water, yelling to her son as loudly as she could.

Hearing her voice, the little boy became alarmed and made a U-turn to swim to his mother. It was too late. Just as he reached her, the alligator reached him. From the dock, the mother grabbed her little boy by the arms just as the alligator snatched his legs. An incredible tug-of-war began between the two. The alligator was much stronger than the mother, but the mother was much too passionate to let go. A farmer happened to drive by, heard her screams, raced from his truck, took careful aim and shot the alligator.

Remarkably, after weeks and weeks in the hospital, the little boy survived. His legs were scarred by the vicious attack, and on his arms were deep scratches where his mother’s fingernails dug into his flesh in her effort to hang on to the son she loved.

The newspaper reporter, who interviewed the boy after the trauma, asked if he would show him his scars. The boy lifted his pant legs. And then, with obvious pride, he said to the reporter, “But look at my arms. I have great scars on my arms, too. I have them because my Mom wouldn’t let go.”

This was Mary hanging onto Jesus as long as she could. Her passionate love kept her from turning away.

The power of passionate love was at the cross that day. Jesus, keep me near the cross that I might know such a passionate love.

The Power of an Incredible Purpose

The second discovery I’d like for us to make is the power of an incredible purpose. We find this power in the Apostle John—the one whom Jesus loved. It was this John who had a special place in the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples. It was Peter, James and John who saw Jesus gloriously transfigured on the mountain. It was Peter, James and John who were invited by Jesus to witness the raising of Jairus’ daughter, and they were invited to go with Jesus deeper into the Garden of Gethsemane to pray before his arrest. It is an awesome lesson for us that those who are close to Jesus will be entrusted with great opportunity to serve in the Kingdom: to do for Jesus what he could not do for himself.

Jesus was saying to John, “You have to take my place. You have to do what I cannot do.” We see in these words, not simply a concern of a son for his mother, but also a demonstration of the re-ordering of relationships based on Kingdom principles. Jesus was affirming what he taught in his ministry. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus had been confronted by great crowds, so much so that Mark says his family was looking for him because they thought he has “lost his mind.” Word came to Jesus that his mother and brothers were outside:

33 Jesus replied, “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” 34 Then he looked at those around him and said, “Look, these are my mother and brothers. 35 Anyone who does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3: 22 – 34 NLT).

We are familiar with the saying, “Blood is thicker than water.” In Kingdom relationships, Spirit is thicker than blood. This was John’s commissioning to become the hands and feet of Jesus and demonstrates to us that the purpose of the church is to become the hands and feet of Jesus. As the elder son was responsible for the mother, so those who are becoming people of Christ are responsible for the forgotten of society. You and I are responsible for others. What an incredible purpose!

I am reminded of the story of the husband who had an affair and divorced his wife so he could marry his mistress. The two married and had children. After the children were born, the new wife was diagnosed with terminal cancer. As her days final days drew near, she asked the ex-wife to visit her. The ex-wife reluctantly went to see the dying woman. As the two chatted, the dying woman looked intently at the ex-wife and said, “I have a request.”

“What is that?” the ex-wife replied.

“When I’m gone, will you take care of my children? I don’t know anyone I could trust more with their care,” was the woman’s request.

The ex-wife hesitated for a few moments and the air became heavy as the mother thought about the request she had made. Finally, the ex-wife replied, “I’ll gladly care for your children after your death.”

Later, friends asked the ex-wife, “How could you consent to do that after she destroyed your marriage?”

“God’s love has given me the power to forgive. I think I can accept her children as my own,” was the woman’s answer.

God’s children become our own when we stand near the cross. Like John, we are charged to do for Jesus what He can no longer do for himself–care for others. What an incredible purpose!

Want to know your life purpose? Stand near the cross. That’s where we discover the power of an incredible purpose.

Until next time, keep looking up…

The Injustice of it All…

The Power of Sports

Okay, so last week’s blog is officially the most read blog I’ve ever written…and it dealt with football! I’m going to forget for a moment what that might say about our passion for football (is football our idol? <–click the link to the left to hear David Platt‘s take on the matter) and focus on the issue of injustice since we all seem to be concerned with how unjustly the Saints were treated.

I find it interesting that the week after the Saints lose the game in such an unjust manner that I was scheduled to preach a sermon on the question, “Why does life seem so unfair?” God’s sense of humor continues to amaze me.

You may recall that one of the points of last week’s blog was that life is simply not fair, we just need to deal with it. I shared about Paul’s unjust treatment at the hands of the Philippians, but an even more compelling example is the life of Job in the Old Testament. Talk about injustice!

Job

You remember Job? (click here to read the summary of Job’s story) The Bible calls him a good, rich man–blameless and full of integrity who had ten children, land and livestock. In Job’s story, the curtain of eternity is peeled back and we overhear a conversation between God and Satan. God actually brings Job into the supernatural conversation. God, in bringing up Job, shows His trust in Job to choose rightly. This conversation reveals the inherent nature of humanity to choose the path we will walk through this life—this is God’s revelation of humanity’s free will.

Were we to read Job’s story (you can read the whole story here), we’d discover in the supernatural battle between good and evil, Job gets put in the middle, loses his family, land and livestock and becomes painfully ill. It’s a long story, but you get the point–Job is treated unjustly…and it appears to be God’s fault!

God chose humanity to be participants in the redemption of creation. The Bible opens in paradise and it ends with a restoration of paradise in the Book of Revelation. It’s the in-between that throws us the curve balls of life. In between, we see the entrance of sin and its destructiveness on God’s good creation. Literally, from cover to cover, the Bible is about God restoring His creation, and God chose humanity to be participants in that restoration. We participate by faith. The story of Job illustrates the difference faith makes in both the physical and eternal realms.

As God’s chosen participants in the redemption of His creation, God created humanity with the freedom for making moral choices. The result of that freedom is sometimes bad choices. A person chooses to drink to excess and then drive a car. That person wrecks and kills other people. Bad decision, bad circumstances. One of people’s favorite saying is, “Everything happens for a reason.” Yes, and sometimes that reason is people are dumb and make dumb decisions. I must be careful to never blame God for my own stupidity!

But, what of innocent suffering? When a child is stricken with cancer, or the forces of nature take their toll on families and communities and nations. What of those times? The same rule applies. Return to the Garden of Eden and the curse of original sin. That one event began an unraveling of God’s creation that has caused pain and sickness, and unleashed the power of the forces of nature for destruction, and we are left to deal with the consequences. Yet, God wants to use the suffering of this world to accomplish His purpose of redeeming and reconciling the creation to Himself.

The Source of Our Hope

Romans 8: 28 is one of the most overused verses in the Bible: “And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them,” but it holds out the hope that God is still on the throne even when evil has the world in its grip. God sent His son, Jesus Christ, to die on the cross. God entered the world, limiting Himself to time and space, and when He did, He played by the same rules we play by. He suffered and died. It was in his suffering and death that the world finds its redemption, and it is in his suffering and death that we are called to be participants by faith in God’s eternal plan.

God doesn’t answer us for two reasons, I think. First, knowing the answer would not make the burden any less hard to bear. Second, God doesn’t answer because we are incapable of comprehending the answer.

We cannot see how God uses the ordinary circumstances of our daily lives to bring redemption, but that doesn’t mean God isn’t doing it. It’s been compared to making a cake. Raw flour by itself does not taste so good. Certainly, raw eggs are not something we include in our daily diet because they taste good—unless we’re Rocky Balboa. Bitter chocolate, baking powder and shortening are not good alone, but when we combine all the ingredients we get a wonderfully delicious cake.

God is faithful to trust us in the fight between good and evil. We fight by faith: faith in the One who has won the battle already, and we bear our pain and suffering knowing that, like Job, our faith matters. In the here and now, we make a difference by faith. In eternity, we make a difference by faith.

Yeah, I know that doesn’t answer the question for all time, but it is the best I can do for now. And, I bet this blog post won’t get nearly as many views as last week’s. I guess I should write more about sports!

Until next time, keep looking up…

For All the “Saints”…

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a New Orleans Saints fan. Seriously, my earliest memories of football…any football…are of the New Orleans Saints on Sunday afternoon, usually at my Grandmother’s house. I love me some Saints football.

That’s one reason I’m heartbroken this week. The Saints played in the NFC Conference Championship game on Sunday afternoon and were robbed (yes, robbed) of the chance to play in the Super Bowl on February 3rd. There was a horrible no-call pass interference penalty late in the fourth quarter that most likely would have ended the game with a New Orleans walk-off field goal. Anyone but the most avid Los Angeles Rams fan would agree the non-call was egregious (check here and here), but that fact doesn’t change the result of the game: LA Rams 26, NO Saints 23!

Here’s my confession: I take the New Orleans Saints too seriously. After all, it’s just a game, and in the grand scheme of eternity, no one will care 100 years from now about a non-call in a football game in 2019. I should probably repent of the overzealous, in-the-moment Facebook posts that are usually scathing rebukes of Sean Payton‘s (the Saints head coach) play-calling, Drew Brees’ (the Saints quarterback) decision-making, or the officials questionable officiating. So, there is my mea culpa. I don’t suspect there will be one coming from the NFL Corporate Office in New York City, though.

Now that I’ve had a little time to reflect on the events of this past Sunday, there are a few lessons I’ve learned that I feel like I should share. First, it’s just a game. When did 22 men running around on a field tossing a ball earning millions of dollars for doing so become so important to me? When did it become so important to our culture?

I know it says something about my priorities when I bend over backwards to insure that I’m home sitting in front of the television whenever the Saints are playing. I can’t imagine why I let professional football have such control over my life, my temperament and my emotions. Some of those guys do a lot of good with the money they earn for playing a game (and I appreciate those who do), but they don’t know me (and never will), and yet I choose to surrender control of my life to their escapades for three hours every week. That’s a reflection on me, not on them. It’s just a game, with no eternal significance.

Second, I learned that there are some things in life we just can’t control. Drew Brees said it best in his post-game conversation: “I prefer to look at the things that are in my control.” There is a little “control freak” in all of us (I like to think I’m not the only one) that tries to control every situation and person in life. Life doesn’t always turn out the way we hope or imagine. Instead of spending time worrying about the things we can’t control, it’s best to utilize our time controlling those things we can control. What could I do to make this situation better or different? What decisions could I have made differently? What did I do wrong that led to this outcome? What opportunities did I miss because I was otherwise distracted? It’s wasted energy to spend time contemplating the “what-if’s” of life.

Third, I am reminded that life is simply not fair. Yes, the Saints were robbed. No, it’s not fair. Now, get over it. Life is not fair. Deal with it. The Apostle Paul had first hand experience with the injustice of life. While in the city of Philippi on his second missionary journey, Paul and his traveling companion, Silas, were beaten and arrested for casting an evil spirit out of a young slave girl. There was nothing just about their treatment at the hands of the Philippians. What did Paul and Silas choose to do? They dealt with it. They went to prison. They sang praises at midnight. They refused to let their circumstances dictate their attitude.

Certainly don’t read that to mean that we shouldn’t fight injustice as long as we’re able. Even in our fighting, though, we’ll discover that life will not always deal fairly with us. Life being unfair with us does not mean that we do not seek justice on behalf of others.

Finally, I learn that everyone makes mistakes. The two officials who could have (should have) made that call failed to do so. Some think it was a conspiracy (part of me wants to believe it), but it was probably just one of those moments when a choice was made and it turned out to be the wrong choice. That’s NEVER happened to me!

Actually, it happens to me more times than I care to admit. Because it happens to me more times than I care to admit, I am reminded of my desperate need for grace and forgiveness. I am grateful for a Savior who loves me and offers himself for my forgiveness in those times I fall short. None of us are above making mistakes, and none of us are out of the reach of God’s grace. I’ll extend that same grace to those officials who made a mistake (a doozy, for sure). I’m certain those officials feared for their safety as they left the Superdome Sunday evening. No one deserves to live in fear because of their mistakes. Not you. Not me. Not them. I’m very grateful for the gift of grace.

I’m sure there are more lessons I could learn if I contemplated the situation some more, but then I’d just get upset by thinking about it. I think it’s time to move on, and so I shall. Hope you do, too. Move on from whatever mistake is dominating your life…move on from whatever circumstance is controlling your attitude, temperament and emotions…just, move on. Don’t be bound by chains of unforgiveness. Live in God’s gracious embrace.

Oh, and I almost forgot, Geaux Saints!

Until next time, keep looking up…

The Lost Grace…

CHRISTIAN CONFERENCE

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, in his writings and teachings noted what he called the “means of grace.” By “means of grace,” Wesley meant those practices whereby the disciple of Jesus Christ could experience the grace of God in life-transforming ways. Wesley would say, “Do these practices on a regular basis, and watch the work of the Holy Spirit change you.” That’s the popular Lynn Malone paraphrase but you get the idea. Wesley would distinguish between what he termed the “instituted” means and the “ordinary” means by allowing that the “instituted” means were those given to the body of Christ directly by Jesus himself. Among those “instituted” means of grace were prayer, fasting, searching the Scriptures (we’d call that Bible study) and the Lord’s Supper (Holy Communion), but he also lists a fifth that we’ve lost sight of in the 21st century. He called it “Christian conference.”

We hear “Christian conference,” and we think about going to a big gathering of Christians to hear preaching and teaching, worship and the like—think Promise Keeper’s or Women of Faith. Or, if we’re a good Methodist, we think about going to Annual Conference, which is the yearly gathering of Methodists from across the state where we worship and fellowship and conduct the business of the “Annual Conference,” which (for those of you not familiar with the Methodist tradition) is an institution in and of itself. None of those thoughts were on Wesley’s mind as he taught the practice of “Christian conference.” For Wesley, Christian Conference was honest, direct, piercing conversation with other Christians that was intended to help the participants grow in holiness.

GRACE LOST

Why don’t we practice this habit more often, or at all? One reason is that we desire comfort and seek to avoid conflict. Confrontation is awkward, messy, and hard, so few do it. Additionally, churches and spiritual communities are intentional about creating a sense of peace, encouragement, happiness, and joy even if it’s a façade. Identifying sin, exposing immorality, admitting the truth, uncovering corruption, and acknowledging failure contradict the image many churches are trying to portray. Following Jesus was never meant to be comfortable or easy. To live a holy life requires accountability.

In a society obsessed with self-gratification, pleasure, and comfort, churches too easily succumb to an attitude of appeasement instead of responsibility and intervention. Unchecked sin causes havoc and devastation. And while accountability can be misused, not using it at all can cause widespread harm. Accountability goes both ways and isn’t exclusively meant for pastors or those in leadership to punish those “beneath” them. Everyone is responsible. Often it’s those in leadership who need accountability the most.

Another reason we don’t develop the habit of accountability is because we live in a culture of unlimited options and choices. The next sentence is going to hurt me more than it hurts you, but it is going to hurt, so prepare yourself. Churches (and pastors) emphasize comfort because discomfort causes people to leave congregations. There, I said it! In a world inundated with options, where endless venues vie to satisfy our every need, churches are no different, and if Christians become uncomfortable, upset or discouraged, they can simply pack up and go someplace else, and many of them do. It’s easier for a church to make everyone feel good, but it often comes at the cost of spiritual maturity.

Jesus faced the same problem, too. John’s Gospel records an incident in chapter six. Jesus had fed five thousand and walked on water. The next day, the crowds clamored to be around him. Jesus figured it was time for a little accountability, so he told them, “You just wanted me for what I could do for you. Don’t worry so much about what I can provide for you, but focus on the eternal matters of life” (John 6: 26 – 27). It turned out to be one of the most difficult conversations Jesus had with those who followed him as he tried to explain that He was the bread of life. The people began arguing among themselves, and when all was said and done, we find a revealing little passage in John 6:66—“At this point, many of his disciples turned away and deserted him.” Difficult conversations cause discomfort, and with so many options, we choose not to be uncomfortable.

There is a danger in developing the habit of accountability, though, and that danger is another reason we don’t practice it much anymore. The danger is legalism. Sadly, many churches, both past and present, have wrongly implemented “accountability” to serve their own agendas. There are numerous accounts of using guilt, shame, fear, embarrassment, and terror to manipulate, abuse, control, hurt, and destroy the lives of countless victims. Church history has been stained by varying degrees of legalism, and today’s churches will do anything to avoid such labels, even if it means abandoning the practice of accountability altogether. It is sad that we throw the baby out with the bathwater.

REDISCOVERING GRACE

The Apostle Paul encouraged the Galatian church to hold each other accountable, and reminded them of how to do it. Paul said that we should “gently” help a fellow traveler back on the path so that we don’t fall into the same ditch. The loss of accountability can lead to believers who are susceptible to self-righteousness and spiritual immaturity. Ironically, it can also result in Christians who are more judgmental towards those outside the faith. Instead of holding ourselves accountable, it’s much easier to point the finger at the rest of society, and to be the accuser instead of the accused. To avoid our own sins, we often distract ourselves by focusing on the sins of others.

Our challenge is to responsibly develop the habit of accountability without abusing it, to gracefully and lovingly help people grow in their faith without being legalistic or abusive or accusatory, to challenge and inspire people through relational support and encouragement instead of abandoning and isolating them. The grace of accountability is about building up, not tearing down. The grace in accountability is about encouragement, not discouragement. The grace in accountability is for prayer together and prayer for one another—it is, as Paul reminds the Galatians, about bearing one another’s burdens.

John Wesley would agree. In what are called Wesley’s “Large Minutes,” he writes in reference to Christian Conference: “Are we convinced how important and how difficult it is to order our conversation right? It is always in grace? Seasoned with salt? Meet to minister grace to the hearers?” For Wesley, it was always about building up the body—to help each other live holy lives.

Living holy lives is the end game. It’s not about church growth, it’s about spiritual growth. The church is the place we learn to practice the habits that promote spiritual growth that we can then take back to work, to school, home and to our communities so that God’s transformation takes place, not only in us, but in the world around us.

How do I begin to develop this habit, and discover its grace? It’s all about relationship! Transformation takes place in relationship—a relationship with Jesus Christ and a relationship with others who walk the journey. The imagery Paul uses in Galatians 6 of another believer being “overcome” by some sin, the language literally is of one who has slipped—like on an icy sidewalk, or on an uneven path. No one plans to slip on an icy sidewalk. No one plans a misstep on that path, but it happens, even when we’re being careful. Yes, we can many times pick ourselves up, but when someone else is there to help us, it makes it easier. Yes, it’s embarrassing to slip on that icy patch. We look around to see if anyone saw us, and we even try to resist the efforts of others who come along to help us. Paul’s point is we need someone to help us when we stumble over sin in our lives.

Wesley’s genius was his organization of converts into societies, classes and bands. Think congregation, small group, smaller group here. For early Methodists, these accountable relationships happened in the class meetings. Classes were groups of 10-12 persons who met weekly and focused on the details of individual’s lives, where they were experiencing God and growing in faith and holiness, and where they were not experiencing God or failing to grow in faith and holiness. They asked one simple question: “How is your life in God?” It was, in all its facets, a means of developing the habit of accountability, and for Wesley, it was grace.

Accountability can be grace to us, too, when we find a group, or even a person where we can ask and be asked the question, “How is your life in God?”

Don’t have a group? Ask your pastor. Or, ask me. I’ll be glad to help.

Until next time, keep looking up…

 

Christmas Stinks!

grinchChristmas stinks! Or, so would say the Grinch who stole Christmas. You remember the Grinch? The slinky, green ogre of a character created by Dr. Seuss whose heart was too small to love and appreciate Christmas? We know the story. All the Who’s down in Whoville make the Grinch cringe with all their joy and happiness, and so the Grinch does his best to literally steal the joy of the holiday.

Click here to watch the original version of Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch Who Stole Christmas

There was probably not much the Grinch was right about, but I will say that Christmas stinks. Before you call me the Grinch, I ask you to think about this with me for a moment. In your mind’s eye, see if you can go back a little over 2,000 years to a tiny village in the Judean wilderness. We have such a quaint picture in our minds of what that first Christmas was like. Most of our greeting cards and nativity scenes are populated with colorful flowing robes and pristine figures so it fools us into believing that it was a quaint, pristine time. Well, folks, it stunk! Remember that Christmas came in a barn.

There were basically two ways people kept their livestock in those days. First, there was the inner room of the home. On the interior of the home was a large room full of straw, mangers and other necessities for keeping the animals. Most people weren’t rich, and their homes were very modest, and they didn’t own much livestock anyway. You might be interested to know the Paschal Lamb (the lamb used for the Passover meal) was actually a family pet that had been raised IN the home. People didn’t own barns, so their homes were constructed so that their animals were kept on the very interior of the home, and the living quarters ringed the stable. I’m not sure if you know it or not, but sheep stink!

The other type of stable was generally a cave, and this is most likely where those who came to Bethlehem on that first Christmas would find Joseph and Mary. They had gone to the innkeeper to find a room, but all he had to offer was a stable, probably behind the inn or down the street, or even on the edge of town. A cave–dark, damp, and musty. Add to the damp, musty smell of the cave some really smelly sheep, a few lowing cattle, and who knows, a few chickens (there probably weren’t any pigs—they were Jews, you know?) and you have all the makings for a really stinky place to have a baby. Yeah, let’s not even talk about the smell of that! We must not forget, either, that there was a cast of characters who came to the cave that night who were quite smelly in their own right—the shepherds. Keeping smelly sheep out in the fields of Palestine was not conducive to bathing on a regular basis. It’s highly unlikely these shepherds would have stopped by the local bathhouse before making their way to the grotto that day. Put all these elements together and we have a recipe for one malodorous mixture. Let’s just say, this was not your mother’s Jean Nate.

What an image! What a breathtakingly beautiful image! Beautiful because we know it was God entering this world. It was God taking on human flesh. It was God coming to show us what He looks like, and when God showed up, He showed up in the smelliest, lowliest place on earth. It was the most beautifully rancid place on earth, and it changed the world. The presence of Jesus transformed the dank, dark, smelly confines of a cave into a place of light, and life and love. That’s what Christmas did. That’s what Christmas does.

Christmas means God is with us—Immanuel! God is still invading this smelly old world of ours. We know that God has come in Jesus to transform our dark hearts made rancid by the stink of sin in our lives. We need transformation—all of us—all the time. I am reminded of Scottish pastor Alexander Whyte. He faithfully served his congregation in the Scottish countryside for over 40 years, and was known by all in the community as a saintly man. One day a parishioner came to Rev. Whyte and exclaimed, “Oh, Rev. Whyte, we’re so blessed to have you as our pastor. You’re such a saint!”

Rev. Whyte looked at the parishioner and replied, “Madam, if you could see my heart you’d spit in my face.”

None of us is exempt from the stinkiness that is sin in our lives. Hatred, greed, pride, arrogance, apathy and jealousy are just a few of the sins that we battle almost daily, and let’s not even get into some of those “gray” areas that we like to debate these days. Yes, it stinks, I tell you, but Christmas reminds me that the Christ who was born in a stinky barn desires to be born in me, and the same Christ who transformed that stinky old cave can transform stinky old me.

I am reminded, too, that the stink of sin, while even being transformed in me still captures much of this world. It stinks that we live in a world where war continues to take innocent lives and force refugees to flee homes and families and livelihoods. It stinks that there are children this night who will go to bed hungry, and that in a world where there is such abundance that anyone should starve. Some starve because there aren’t resources to feed them, and others starve because people withhold resources as a show of power, or as punitive action against a rival. It stinks that we live in a political climate that is so deeply divided that the good that could be done so rarely gets done because of personal agendas and desire for control. It stinks that we live in a world where our children are no longer safe from predators who would rob them of their innocence. It stinks that we live in a world where young women are kidnapped and forced into the slavery of the sex trafficking business that will be flourishing over the next several weeks as playoffs and national championships and Super Bowls will be going full blast. It stinks that in the next twelve months there will be 40 million abortions worldwide. It stinks that over the next twelve months it is projected that substance abuse and other addictive behaviors will have over a 600 BILLION dollar impact on the economy, not to mention the destruction to families, the loss of jobs, the failures in school, the domestic violence and child abuse. It stinks, I tell you, but Christmas reminds me that God is still with us, and that He seeks to be born in us to transform the darkness and the dankness and the smelliness of this broken world. Yes, those are stinky places, but if we will take the time to get out of our comfortable little worlds, we just might discover that God is there because Christmas reminds us that God is born in the stinky places of this world, born to bring light and life and love. As Christ is born in us, we can bring the sweet aroma of his presence into those terribly smelly places.

It’s certainly not in the way the Grinch meant, but yes, Christmas stinks. But isn’t it beautiful? Isn’t it sweet? Isn’t it good?

Merry Christmas!

Until next time, keep looking up…

2,500 Miles in the Wrong Direction…

If I might use the superlative “great” in reference to the AMC series Breaking Bad, I don’t think it would be out of place. Breaking Bad was a great series with great characters, a great storyline, great actors, great dialogue, great drama and a great and tragic ending. That’s a lot of “greats,” isn’t it? One great scene that sticks in my mind is the last episode of the series. Walt and Jesse, his former partner in crime, stand face to face, and Walt is just ready for his life to end, and he taunts Jesse to do the deed. It’s a great ending to a great story.
jonah3The ending to the series Breaking Bad is so incredibly similar to the scene in which the Old Testament prophet, Jonah, finds himself at the end of the book (Read Jonah 4 here). I think I can use the same superlative “great” to describe Jonah’s story. As a matter of fact, the author of the book of Jonah uses the word “great” no less than fifteen times in the fifty-eight verses of the book. There is a “great” city. There is a “great” wind and a “great” storm. There are sailors with “great” fear. There are “great” people. God is “greatly” displeased, and there is “great” calamity. There is also “great” joy, and we must never forget there was a “great” fish that was part of Jonah’s story. We find Jonah sitting outside the city of Nineveh wishing for his life to end. Jonah is angry, and he challenges God to just kill him, already! If anyone ever needed an “attitude adjustment,” it was Jonah. So, how did Jonah get there?

Jonah was one of the “minor” prophets of the Old Testament. He’s best known for being swallowed up by a great fish, but there’s more to the story than that. Jonah’s journey begins when God calls him to “go down to Nineveh and preach.” But, Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh, and he certainly didn’t want to preach to them.

What does Jonah do? He hops a ship and goes 2,500 miles in the opposite direction. He wants to get as much water between he and the city of Nineveh as he can. God calls, and Jonah doesn’t answer, “Here I am, Lord, send me.” He put it in high gear and hightailed it to a place called Tarshish.

It is Jonah’s hightailing response you are most familiar with. You may remember that when he hopped that ship that God went with him, and the story goes there was a great wind and a great storm so that everyone on the ship thought they would perish. Jonah slept through the storm until finally the captain woke him up and challenged him to pray to his god for deliverance as all the other sailors were doing. Jonah eventually admits that he’s the cause of the storm and implores the sailors to throw him overboard to save themselves. Very noble wouldn’t you say? See, it’s not that Jonah is unconcerned for people in general. It’s just the Ninevites that he has a problem with. He was thrown overboard by the sailors and was swallowed by a “great” fish. Three days and three nights of severe indigestion caused the fish to vomit Jonah out onto dry land, and wouldn’t you know, it was on the same seashore from which he left. Right back where he started from, and still confronted by God’s call to “go to Nineveh and preach.” So, what’s a guy to do standing on the seashore smelling of fish? “Alright,” Jonah says, “I’ll do it, but I won’t like it.”

Jonah goes to Nineveh, which is so large that it takes three days to cross it (that’s about sixty miles for those of us with pick-up trucks). Jonah arrives on the edge of the city and begins to deliver the shortest sermon in history—one sentence—five words in the Hebrew and eight in the English translation: “Forty days from now, Nineveh will be destroyed.” There are no flowery speeches, no illustrations, no three points and a poem. Short, sweet and to the point.

Someone said, “There’s no such thing as a bad short sermon.” That’s not true! I’ve heard some bad, short sermons. Jonah’s, however, was a great short sermon. It was great, not because it was short, but because it was effective. Jonah didn’t get a third of the way across the city before the people of Nineveh started repenting. They started putting on sackcloth and ashes, and what’s more, even the animals felt the power of Jonah’s message. Even the King, who heard the message second-hand, was touched and commanded the whole kingdom repent and turn to God. WOW! Billy Graham had nothing on Jonah! The problem was that such rousing success only served to make Jonah angry.

Jonah was reluctant to go to Nineveh because the Ninevites were the mortal enemies of Israel at this time in their history. The Assyrians were known for their extreme cruelty to the captors, and Israel had experienced that cruelty often during the years of the minor prophets (circa the 5 – 8th centuries B.C.). Assyrian records brag of live dismemberment wherein the victims were often left with only one hand so the Assyrian attacker could shake it before the person died. Another practice was making parades of heads, requiring friends of the deceased to carry them elevated on poles. Jonah really had no desire to go to Nineveh for obvious reasons. He might well have expected to be arrested, tortured, or become training fodder for the Assyrian army until they got tired of him, and led him through the city streets to hang as an act of national pride and unity.

Not only were the Assyrians enemies, but they were Gentile enemies. Do you know how much the Hebrews hated Gentiles? The daily prayer of the Hebrew man was to thank God they were not born slave, female or Gentile. The Gentiles were not God’s chosen people. They were not special like the Israelites. Surely, Jonah didn’t expect that God really wanted him to go to Nineveh?

Actually, Jonah knew that’s exactly what God wanted him to do. Jonah refused to go to Nineveh, literally went 2,500 miles in the wrong direction, was swallowed and vomited out by a great fish before he finally consented to go because, in his own words, “I knew that you were a gracious and compassionate God.” Imagine! Jonah’s bad attitude is because of God’s grace and mercy, and it’s so bad that it throws him into such a deep depression that he despairs his own life.

“I knew you’d relent, Lord.” “I knew you’d save them, Lord, and I just didn’t really want you to do that!” “They deserve to die for their wickedness and evil ways!” Imagine Jonah saying that, and never stopping for one moment to consider the same gracious and compassionate God had saved him from the belly of a fish not many days before.

In his anger, Jonah leaves the city and sets up camp on the off chance that the Ninevites show their true colors and revert to their evil ways, or God might wise up and destroy them anyway. Underneath his little brush arbor, God decides to give Jonah an attitude adjustment. A vine grows and provides shade for Jonah. “Ah, cool,” he thought, but the next day, a worm comes and destroys the vine while a scorching wind begins to blow. “Awe, man! Just let me die!” exclaims Jonah.

But, God said, “You’re angry because a vine died, and yet you didn’t make it grow or tend it?” The Lord continued, “Look Jonah, there’s a city down there with 120,000 people that I care about, not to mention the animals. You should care about them.” God lets him know that he misses the point totally.

Jonah’s attitude is laughable if it didn’t sound so familiar. A gracious and compassionate God—what a depressing thought! Until, of course, we are confronted with our own enemies and we come face to face with the realization that the same God who is gracious and compassionate to us seeks to be gracious and compassionate to them, too. As those called to follow Christ, we must put feet to our faith, and that is where the rub comes, especially when we realize the desire of God’s heart is to use us as vessels of His grace and compassion even to our enemies.

How do we do that? Listen to what Jesus told his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount:

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.    Matthew 5: 43 – 45 (NLT)

Loving our enemies may never be easy, and our attempts to avoid doing so (though probably not met with encounters with great, stinky fish) will always be met by God’s persistent call to obedience. Giving up deeply held resentments will be the hardest part, but our failure to do so will likely result in heaping anguish and pain on ourselves—not the least of which might be depression not unlike that which Jonah faced. That’s the attitude we need to break. We need God’s attitude to be our attitude. We need to see God’s perspective. Otherwise, we’ll just keep running 2,500 miles in the wrong direction.

A gracious and compassionate God! What a depressing thought!

Until next time, keep looking up…

Story Matters Here…

amc-logoThe cable network AMC has a wonderful tag line that says “Story Matters Here.” Shows on the network include Mad MenThe Walking Dead, and one I’ve recently begun to watch, Breaking Bad.

Here’s the premise of Breaking Bad:

Walter White’s story begins with Walter standing in the middle of the New Mexico desert without his pants on. It’s quite dramatic, and the viewer is wondering how in the world he got there. The next scene flashes back to three weeks earlier to tell us how Walter made it to that desert. We learn in the first episode of the first season that Walter is a high school chemistry teacher with a wife, a special needs son, and a baby on the way. He’s lived a rather average life. Living on a teacher’s salary is not always easy, so Walter takes a second job at the local car wash to make ends meet. One day, he begins to struggle with a nagging cough, passes out at his car wash job and ends up at the hospital where a battery of tests are run. The discovery is made that he has terminal cancer. Fearing that he’s made no provision for his family, he turns to making drugs to make fast money. I know, not a great story line for a somewhat Christian blog, but AMC does a masterful job telling Walter’s story. Each episode of the series begins at the end of the story, and then goes back to tell the story.BreakingBad

I can’t think of the tag line “Story Matters Here” without thinking about the Bible. The Bible is God’s story, and there is no greater story in the world, nor is there a story that matters more. The Bible tells some amazing stories, too. The bible tells stories of incredibly normal people who do some pretty incredible things.  Makes me think there’s hope for me yet.

One of the great stories is the story of Joseph.  Let me review it briefly. Joseph story begins in Genesis 37, and is the 11th son of Jacob, the great patriarch of the Hebrew nation, but he’s the first son of Jacob’s treasured wife Rachel, and that makes Joseph very special in his father’s eyes. Not so in the eyes of his 10 older brothers. They see him as the spoiled, tattle tale younger brother. Of course, their father hasn’t helped matters much. He did give Joseph a “coat of many colors” to signify their special relationship with each other. It wasn’t necessarily the coat that sealed the deal for his brothers, but the fact that Joseph had a couple of dreams, and he thought it necessary to share the content of the dreams with his brothers. Long story short—both dreams showed his ten brothers and his father bowing down to him.

The rest of the story goes something like this:

  • Older brothers get mad at Joseph and sell him into slavery.
  • Joseph is taken to Egypt and sold again to Potiphar, a captain in Pharaoh’s palace guard.
  • Joseph excels in Potiphar’s house and becomes chief steward.
  • Potiphar’s wife takes a shine (if you know what I mean?) to Joseph.
  • Joseph resists, and is eventually charged with rape.
  • Joseph is thrown in prison. Languishes in prison for two years.
  • Pharaoh has a dream. Only Joseph is able to interpret the dream. Wins his release from prison.
  • Pharaoh elevates Joseph to Prime Minister in Egypt.
  • Famine hits the region.
  • Joseph’s brothers show up hunting food. They don’t recognize Joseph, but he recognizes them.

So, Joseph decides to have a little fun at their expense.

“You’re a bunch of spies!” he exclaims.

“No, way, my Lord. We’re brothers and honest men (ha! Ha! Ha! Joseph thinks). We just came to buy food.

“No, you’re spies!” he persists.

“No,” his brothers respond. “There are twelve of us. Our youngest brother remains at home with our father, and one brother is no more among us.”

Joseph says, “Prove it to me. One of you go get your younger brother and bring him here. I’ll keep nine of you in prison here (probably the same prison he was imprisoned in—oh, the irony!), while one of you goes back to Canaan to fetch the youngest.”

Joseph has them all put in prison for three days to let them think it over. They lament this is all happening because of what they did to Joseph about 17 years earlier.  A guilty conscience hangs around for a long time. The brothers hadn’t dealt with the guilt of what they had done to Joseph. That’s what guilt does to us. It eats at us until we deal with it in a healthy way. Edgar Allan Poe’s epic short story The Tell-tale Heart reflects the depths to which unresolved guilt can lead us. Poe’s narrator has murdered an old man and hidden his body under the floor boards of his home. The police come, and all the narrator can hear is the beating of the old man’s heart. Louder and louder it grows, ringing only in his ears, until he breaks down and confesses to the police. That’s where Joseph’s brothers find themselves.

The brothers eventually bring not only their younger brother, but their father and all their families to settle in the Egyptian area of Goshen. Joseph reveals himself to them all. They have a grand family reunion, and Jacob and all his progeny flourish under Joseph’s watchful care. Then, Jacob dies.

Returning from the funeral, the brothers fear that Joseph will now take his revenge. Though they’ve been living in Egypt for 17 years, and Joseph has cared for them, the brothers believe the bad blood still exists. Joseph had forgiven them. Seventeen years earlier, the brothers stood before him and he revealed who he was and said, “Don’t worry. God sent me here to save you and many others. Don’t be mad at yourselves for selling me into slavery. It’s all good. It’s a God thing” (Genesis 45 paraphrase). The problem was they couldn’t forgive themselves. Their guilt kept them from receiving the very thing that would reconcile them to Joseph. Guilt kept them from accepting their own forgiveness. Guilt kept them from experiencing grace, and grace is the only thing that can break bad blood.

Forgiveness is a gift that must be both extended and received. Joseph’s story foreshadows the story of Jesus Christ, who came to extend God’s forgiveness to us. Forgiveness is grace, and as such, can never be earned. It is a gift from the heart of God, and it must be a gift from us to others. The situation doesn’t demand it, the world doesn’t expect it, and the guilty don’t deserve it, but we do it anyway. Because that’s what Christ has done for us. But, there is also the matter of receiving the gift of forgiveness. We have to believe we’re really forgiven. Until we come to the point that we accept forgiveness, we’ll run away from that which will give us peace—and that’s our reconciliation to Christ. Rick McCarley tells the story of an attorney, who after studying on several scriptures, decided to cancel the debts of all his clients that owed him money for more than six months. He drafted a letter explaining his decision and its biblical basis and sent 17 debt-canceling letters by certified mail. Sixteen of the seventeen letters were returned, unsigned and undelivered. Why? Because the clients refused to sign for them and open the envelopes. They were afraid the attorney was suing them for their debts. In their fear, they ended up running away from his forgiveness.

May I offer two challenges to consider: First, we need to check our list. What list, you ask? The list we keep with the names of those we have yet to forgive. We all keep one, right? There’s bad blood, and the only thing that will break the bad blood is forgiveness. Joseph didn’t keep a list. He let it go because he saw God working even in the bad parts of life, and that takes grace. What list needs offering to the Lord? Who do we need to go to and offer our forgiveness?

Second, we need to accept forgiveness. Some of us need to accept the fact that God has forgiven us in Jesus Christ, and others need to accept the forgiveness that someone else has attempted to extend, but for whatever reason, whether we can’t forgive ourselves, or we can’t get past the pain, we’ve not accepted the gift that’s been offered. So, the bad blood festers, and it will eventually destroy us. Is it so hard to believe that God loves us unconditionally? For 17 years, Joseph’s brothers couldn’t believe they’d been forgiven. How long have you been holding out accepting your own acceptance?

Joseph’s is a compelling story…and…story matters here. Mine matters…and…your’s matters. May both our stories be a story of forgiveness…both receiving and extending.

Until next time, keep looking up…