Revealing Weakness, Finding Strength

A woman came up to me recently and told me she really enjoyed my sermons but “I wish you weren’t so negative about yourself. You cut yourself down too much.” I’m not so sure she had a valid point (in churches, as in stores, the customer is not always right) but I knew to what she was referring. I use humor in every lesson but I also make it a point to assure the congregation that I am a fellow traveler on the same journey they are on. Whatever tempts them, tempts me. What struggles they face, I face. I do not live on a church stage behind a plastic podium; I have a real life with real issues and real struggles.

Why do I go to great pains to make sure they understand that I am a man of sin and struggles, just as they are? Two reasons come to mind. I can remember sitting in church pews when I was a boy, hearing the preacher thunder against our sins and questioning our very salvation or integrity…but I don’t remember him sharing his. Even as a boy of seven or eight, that bothered me. The second reason is this: I do not believe that a fake wall of separation between the preacher and the pew is safe or good for either party. I think it is healthy for the preacher to struggle openly so that no one is surprised when they see him struggle privately.

For those who think the ministry is not only a calling but a role to be played out for the benefit of the faith of others, I would remind you that that sounds perilously close to the definition of “hypocrite” – an actor on a stage. I would also direct them to read scripture more often, ignoring the chapter and verse designations that often break up the story and make the Bible look like a law book. Just read the stories as they come, one right after the other. Look at what God included in His book! There’s the Tamar story, the one about a prostitute in Jericho who lied and was blessed by God for it, a speech from Rabshakeh where he taunted the Israelites and told them they’d be drinking their own urine soon, and I certainly would not have put the Japheth story in there or a host of others…but God was not reticent in sharing the weaknesses of the people in His story.

The songbook of the Jews for hundreds of years was the Book of Psalms – and 61 are entirely songs of lament. Many others contain lament as well as affirmations of the writer’s weaknesses, lack of faith, and personal struggles. Look at the Book of Jeremiah, or Job, or the entire Book of Lamentations. Ecclesiastes has some less-than-peppy parts, too.

Scour the scripture and you will not find a health and wealth gospel or a shiny, happy gospel but a story of people who wrestle with God (which is, of course, what the word “Israel” means…and God named them that) and who very, very, very often get it wrong. Terribly wrong. Tragically wrong.

We see Peter go from champion to racist to preacher to an also ran whose story peters out (sorry) when Paul comes along. And we see Paul’s work crash near the end of his life when he laments that “all those in Asia have turned against me.” The second half of Hebrews 11 – the famous Faith Chapter – casually mentions the fact that a whole lot of folk who followed God ended up dying in quite nasty ways.

Even the heroes make us squirm. Abraham sells out his own wife a couple of times, mistreats his secondary wife, and causes problems we are still dealing with on our nightly news. When told he is going to have that son of promise after all, his wife laughs and they name the kid “laughter” or “Isaac.”

And my story is that of Isaac. There are many people of great faith in scripture but Isaac is not really one of them. It might have had something to do with that whole Mount Moriah thing. When your father’s religion almost guts you on top of a mountain it can sour you to that whole religion-thing. [Side note: a few rabbi friends of mine tell me that there is an ancient tradition that says Isaac was 37 years old at that time. That changes everything. If your son is 37 and still living at home…]

Most think Isaac was in his late teens at the time of that horrible trip up Mount Moriah. All I know is that for the rest of his life he never works great acts of faith like his father or his son and descendants. Instead, he sits on the other end of the pew from God. He got close to God up there and the whole experience might have just soured him enough to consider it not a great idea to wrap his arms around Yahweh.

I have often considered myself Isaac. My father was a champion in our corner of our religious tribe. We occupied a far right position that was quite noisy, very insistent, and completely assured of our correct posture before the Lord. Champions of that sub-set of our tribe often came to our home and they all treated my father with respect, talking late into the night concerning who was wrong and why. Even as a boy of 8 or 9 I knew that there was no place in the kingdom for me. I didn’t think like they did. They intimidated me with the fire in their eyes and their confidence in their correctness.

For I already knew me. I was not holy. I was a sinner. It was drilled into me that I wasn’t there for me, but for the Kingdom. We didn’t play games in our house except for a few times. We were there for the kingdom. I memorized the Jule Miller filmstrips and would stand and narrate them as my father flipped the lever for the next slide (we didn’t use the records – I did everything but the ding). Nights were filled with being quizzed on scripture, doing flashcards on Hebrew and doctrine and facts about the Bible (how many verses in the Bible? Which version? Yes – it differs), and accompanying my father on “cottage meetings” or going off to any gospel meeting within 40 miles of us — if it was being held at a faithful church and had invited a speaker we agreed with.

When I left home, I ran as hard as I could. Getting close to God burned me, shattered me, and left me afraid of my own sinfulness, full of shame, knowing that I would never be able to keep the law I had been taught was my only way out of the coming flames.

Every man (and woman, before I was baptized at the age of 11) who taught me was sincere. They believed what they said and they were passionate that others believe it as well. However, the effect of that legalism and certainty was not positive in my life except in one way: it taught me that I was a sinner. And that was something I needed to know.

I never intended to be a minister or even return to any church but God brought me back and that is a (long) story for another time. Seeing what God was doing, able to read the trajectory of my life and seeing it included church and pulpit, I told Him several things that I would and things I would not do. He has not chafed at such declarations from me in the least. I told Him that if I served Him I would have to be able to ask any question and question any answer. If He is God, I told Him, He’s big enough to handle it. And so He has proved, again and again.

I also told Him I would not play games with my life and that of others. I would not hide and act like I understood everything or that my life was in order. I would be open about my struggles with temptation, my brokenness (seriously, there are days someone should just shoot me with a dart gun, put a tag on my ear or a radio collar on my neck and release me into the wild, thereby saving polite, genteel society from the likes of me), my doubts, or the lack of love I find in my heart when others need it most. God took that bargain and has used my weakness to show the world that He is a good God.

He once used the jawbone of an ass to accomplish His will. Since I am alive, I must assume He is doing the same through me.

For He has saved me anyway. I am Isaac. I don’t understand those with the gift of faith, who listen 24/7 to sermons and Christian music, and who think the art in Christian bookstores is exactly what the world needs. I’m a mess. A saved mess. And the people who come to churches I serve are messes, too. Some of them are a lot better than I am at this whole Christian thing but all of them know I love them and that I will not hide what I am from them: a man who needs a Savior.

That troubles some and I get that. I might not be the minister they need. I think shiny, happy people (shout out to REM there) have the right to worship God and sing “girl with a guitar Jesus is my boyfriend” songs but I’m a man who even back in his teenaged days couldn’t sing “Blue skies and rainbows and sunbeams from heaven” without becoming nauseous. I’ll be the minister for people like me – the broken, the troubled, the inconsistent…God’s problem children.

Those who wrestle with God.

Sometimes, they call us Isaac.

But God calls us His children.

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One of God’s Problem Kids

As far as I’m concerned, we need to pay more attention to the story of Moses. Most of us are quite aware of the facts of the story though we usually leave out some of the coolest parts (such as Moses single handedly taking on a bunch of nomadic raiders to save the pretty girls at the well) and rarely tell our kids he was a difficult man to work with who could grumble and complain with the best of them). What we need to pay more attention to, I think, is when God called him.

 

It wasn’t when he was forty and fit. He was ready to rock and roll way back then. He was outraged at the treatment of his brethren – and contra the Prince of Egypt cartoon, he always knew he was a Hebrew – and he stepped up and struck down a slave driver who was beating a man unmercifully. That sounds great! Let’s rally around him and rebel! Except…

 

…that’s not what happened.

 

God or the bulk of the Hebrews or both weren’t ready for Moses when he was ready for them. Instead, God sent Moses away to hide in the desert. Far, far from the glories of Egypt he made his life as a shepherd (he married into the business) and things pretty much stalled for the next forty years.

 

Then…God reached out and told him it was time to move. When he was eighty.

 

No offense to any readers who are eighty years old or older but, seriously? It would seem to be an inopportune time to lead a slave rebellion and challenge the mightiest nation in the neighborhood.

 

I think that might have been the point. And do you want to know why? Because when Moses was about to run out of reasons that God had the wrong guy, God supplied him with…a stick.

 

A stick. We don’t even know if it was a pointy stick but I’m assuming it wasn’t since it was his sheep whacking stick.

 

So God grabs an 80yr old shepherd with a non-pointy stick and points him toward Egypt and says “sic ’em!”

 

I get this story. I love it. I embrace it. Because I’m living it.

 

I recently spoke at IMPACT, a youth event at Lipscomb University. The team that puts the event together are awesome, creating an alternative world the kids walk into when they enter Allen Arena. Twelve hundred kids are transported to a new time and place with the sets elaborately staged, the drama that unfolds a story bit by bit, and by the worship and (one hopes) speakers like myself. As I entered the outer area of the arena teens ran up to me, squealing with delight that I was there. They wanted pictures taken with me, signatures from me, or just some time and a hug from me.

 

Whaa??? From me? Don’t they know who I am? I am a 57 year old refuge from the farthest right edge of our tribe who wrestles with God, wrestles with his own sins and weaknesses daily, and who often gets grumpy, offended, and testy. I’m an introvert in an extrovert’s job. I’m a minister with no theological training (critics helpfully remind me of this via email almost weekly) who is wading his way through the swamp of life and getting lost from time to time.

 

I shared that with a friend who looked at me and said, “Patrick, that’s the point. They know that. You share that with them. You are open and honest about your failures, your mistakes, and how you are one of God’s problem kids. They relate.”

 

Nicest thing anybody’s ever said to me.

 

In case you’ve never heard me say it, let me say it again, officially: I am not qualified for this job. I don’t have the education or temperament for this job. While I sincerely love the kids, their parents, and my neighbors I prefer loving them from a distance. I see a vast distance between me and Jesus when it comes to personality and priorities and that distance isn’t narrowing anywhere near as fast as I thought it was supposed to narrow as one ages. I shake my head in wonder and disbelief every single time someone emails or calls me asking me to come speak for them. Why would they want that???

 

So…I’ll go. I’ll do the work, but only if you know ahead of time that I live life out loud. I will share my struggles with whomever I speak to. For I don’t do this job because I am strong but out of gratitude to the One who saved me where there was absolutely no reason to do so. There was nothing in my character or education or history that would lead God to think “That’s my guy!” No, He saved me so that, as Paul put it, His strength would be made evident by my weakness, His wisdom made evident by my ignorance and folly.

 

I’m an eighty year old guy with a non-pointy stick. And half the times I use my stick, I end up running from the result (see Moses’ first try). And yet…He loves me, uses me, and saves me.

 

And that thought takes me to West Virginia. For nearly 9 years we lived on a mountain outside of Morgantown. One day, a new family moved in below us so I took my son and primary dog (we had a backup dog in case the primary dog ever failed to function) down to say hello. As we drew close, the screen door opened and three attack Chihuahuas leaped off the porch in “kill” mode. Later, we would find out that each of them was over 10 years old. One was blind. Another had epilepsy. You can’t make this up, people.

 

We had some time to discuss this because the wee dogs were struggling trying to get through the tall grass of a drainage ditch that marked the edge of our property. My son looked at me and asked why the little dogs thought they could hurt us – and my 100lb Labrador mix might have giggled. I’m not really sure if it was a giggle or a snort. I told my son that there was much in the world I didn’t know, but I knew dogs and we should stop right where we were. And…sure enough…the door opened again and two HUGE dogs came out. One was a Newfoundland and the other was maybe a Clydesdale (It was BIG, okay?). They sat down and watched us. I turned to my son and said…

 

“Now you know why they think they can kill us. They have backup.”

 

I might be an 80yr old man with a non-pointy stick. Or I might be a 13yr old blind, epileptic Chihuahua. But I have backup.

 

And I have found that being open about my struggles – for the name of God’s people, which he gave them, was Israel: he who wrestles with God – has opened far more doors for me in the hearts of people around me than my education or speaking ability or stunning good looks ever have.

 

Okay, I don’t have stunning good looks. Told you I struggled.

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Border Children

Before we go any further – go here and look at these pictures from Breitbart.com of children being warehoused on the southern US border.

 

http://www.breitbart.com/Breitbart-Texas/2014/06/05/Leaked-Images-Reveal-Children-Warehoused-in-Crowded-US-Cells-Border-Patrol-Overwhelmed

 

What do you do when politics and religion collide? How willing are we to bend the knee and topple our idols – even our favorite idols?

 

Full disclosure: I’m a little “l” libertarian. I am not a dues paying member of any political party and have never been one except for several years in my youth when I was a member of the Scottish Nationalist Party. I have voted for Republicans, Democrats, and Libertarians/Independent but, again, in the interest of laying all my cards on the table, I vote for more Republicans than the other two combined.

 

Still reading? Here’s where it gets tricky.

 

I don’t have a solution for the border problem or for the immigration problem. I think we’ve made it way, way too hard for someone to come here legally. At the same time, blanket amnesty and/or not securing our borders rubs me the wrong way. It seems wrong, somehow, to act as if the laws we have aren’t there.

 

But our current laws and legislators and bureaucrats have created a situation in which people are shipping their children to the US. Once across the border, they are stored like warehoused goods, moved to other storage areas from Arizona to Wisconsin, and doomed to a status in legal limbo. They are, however, never moved into the neighborhoods of the rulings classes whose laws and bureaucracy caused this tragedy.

 

Looking at their slumped shoulders and unfocused eyes, I am convinced that this is a time for the people of God to do…something…

 

But…what? For decades, there has been a Sanctuary movement among churches in the US, taking in those who’ve crossed illegally and protecting them from the authorities. Some say that they have just encouraged others to make the dangerous trek across the desert to get to the US and that is probably true. We also have to acknowledge that many who try to make that trip are robbed, raped, beaten, and abandoned to die of thirst and exposure. The numbers who die or who are harmed on the journey each year are staggering. We cannot, therefore, pretend that offering sanctuary is morally neutral or entirely positive. There are consequences and some of them are dire.

 

So should we encourage more to come? And would caring for these children just encourage more to come? Fair questions, but I’m not sure we can settle these issues anytime soon and there are young children stranded in crowded rooms in our country right now.

 

This could be a foreseeable result of the Dream Act and it might be a side effect of the corrupt Mexican government and the cartels that run the border. Of course, the cartels would have no power if Americans didn’t take illegal drugs or if the US legalized the drugs, taking away their power and money overnight. Interesting things to talk about… but there are young children stranded in crowded rooms in our country right now…

 

This is certainly a problem caused by politicians and governments so please don’t suggest a political or governmental fix to it. Politicians gain and keep their power by the myth that they can fix the very problems their existence creates. Quit falling for it. Voting for this or that person is not going to fix this.

 

I know that some of these kids are fleeing horrific conditions in their home countries. I also know that there are TV commercials in Guatemala and Honduras advising people to send their children to the US where life will be better for them. I have no idea who is paying for these commercials (NBC reported on it) but I would suspect politicians at play again. I can’t fix that. Neither can you.

 

In short, I am not asking for anyone to chime in with a “you know why they’re here is this guy did that thing and then there was that law and that party that…” comment. That is political speech. It is not Kingdom speech. While there may be some value to politics, I have given up on it. I want to try the Jesus way…if I can figure out what that is. And I don’t want to be frozen into inaction by making this an academic issue or a “somebody else has to do something” problem.

 

We used to have orphanages in the US. Contrary to countless movies, most people had good experiences there. I know quite a few of them. But we closed those and created a foster care system that is failing our own children and has no room for these children. There is no room in the inn.

 

Church…what can we do? Any political solution is a long way down the road and I doubt that every reader will agree on any one idea. We usually respond to these sorts of things by assuming an attitude of helplessness, by being apathetic, or by viewing the issue through fear. We fear the loss of the kind of country we grew up in, the loss of the two party system (there is no question that immigrants vote overwhelmingly for the Democrat Party…at least at present), the loss of our language, etc. but, as the church, we have been called to be citizens of a different country. We have been told to come out from among “them” and be separate. We are supposed to have our loyalty reserved for the King on the throne of the cosmos (at least, I’m pretty sure that’s what Revelation is about).

 

I am confused, conflicted, and contrarian on my best days. But I can’t just sit back and see these warehoused children stay in those boxes. What can we do, church? How willing are we to transcend our parties and earth-bound loyalties? How willing are we to trust in God for the future of our nation, even if He chooses to not make its continuance “as is” a priority?

 

What are we willing to do for the children? If I read Matthew 25 correctly, our response here will have an effect on what happens to us on Judgment Day.

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Bumper to Bumper on the Road to Emmaus

Bumper to Bumper on the Road to Emmaus

 

The story of the two men on the road to Emmaus has fascinated me for years. We all know the story but allow me to briefly summarize it and then explain why I think it is a story for our time.

 

Two men, one named Cleopas and the other unnamed (perhaps it was Luke himself) are dejected, broken, their faith shipwrecked. The Messiah they had placed all their trust in was dead and buried. The new kingdom, the restoration of Israel, and the salvation of their people were now off the table. Everything they had believed in was found to be baseless. They were leaving the center of that new faith and hope – Jerusalem – and the remnants of the community of Jesus. They were headed…away.

 

Jesus, now resurrected in his broken and pierced body but cloaked in a way that made him unrecognizable, joined them on the road. Luke says that he started with Moses and the prophets and showed them everything the Jewish scriptures said considering the Messiah. For 2000 years Christians have mourned the fact that this might have been the greatest sermon Jesus ever preached and not a word of it was recorded. Once the faith of the two men was repaired and restored (by being revisioned and reimagined, their faith moved from a physical hope to a spiritual one) they returned to their faith community in Jerusalem.

 

Here is why you and I need to consider this story today: the road to Emmaus is clogged with bumper to bumper traffic as people leave their faith and their faith communities heading into an uncertain future, their faith shattered, their foundations broken.

 

Every single day I get notes from young people who have lost their faith or who fear that it will soon be lost. Or I get notes from their parents and friends. Or I get notes from people in their 30s and 40s who’ve had their faith broken and their hopes swept suddenly away. The reasons for this are many. Here are some of them in no particular order. I am certain readers can add many more:

 

  1. After a lifetime of Veggie Tales level Bible lessons with cute Arks and smiling animals, our people find themselves unprepared for the deep, dark matters of life. When all parables and Jesus stories are boiled down to predictable aphorisms and bumper-sticker morals, faith is too shallow, too rootless to survive much of a blast.
  2. When worship is non-participative and too predictable, full of shallow prayers or songs that do not connect to the lives and souls of those in attendance, those who feel disconnected…disconnect.
  3. When we have made our Bibles into gods, declaring them the very words of God, dictated to scribes who then passed them on to us perfect in every way we set up our faith and that of our children for failure. When they run across the genocides in Joshua or the Documentary Hypothesis or see how the Bible came together here and there with re-edits and redactors, they wonder why they should believe anything at all. They have been taught to believe their Bible and we neglected to tell them to believe, instead, the One to whom the Bible leads us.
  4. When we insist on non-salvation issues as matters of faith and marks of faithfulness (six day creation, young earth creationism, music styles, church organization styles, and many, many more come to mind) we set ourselves and our children up for a trip to Emmaus when new facts come to light that destroy the old paradigms we/they were told came straight from God.
  5. When churches abuse or are run as private kingdoms or when they fail to encourage and nurture their members and their communities, people leave.
  6. In short, when our faith is in anything other than Jesus, we are set up for a road trip away from the community.

 

Every single day I dedicate between 30 minutes and 3 hours to writing these people. Every. Single Day. Instead of making this a book length blog, I will list some of the books I suggest and let you know why I suggest them. Perhaps you can use this list and add to it to help all of us reach those walking to Emmaus, away from us.

 

If science is the issue, I direct people to the writings of top scientists such as John Polkinghorne, John C. Lennox, David Berlinski, or the intelligent design proponents, William Dembski and Michael Behe. Polkinghorne is one of the greatest physicists in recent generations and his writing can be difficult to understand for those with no science background but he is invaluable for those who are struggling with what they are seeing in test tubes, rocks, and rainbows. Lennox is a treasure – easy to understand yet extremely powerful in his arguments from science. Berlinski (I believe he would call himself a deist) dismantles the arguments of pretentious atheists with great joy and scientific skill. To the above, I would add the book “The Irrational Atheist” by Vox Day, a hyper intelligent writer and designer who decided to have a go at Dawkins and the other New Atheists. I saw his book on sale on Amazon yesterday for 1.99 for Kindle.

 

Many other books spring to mind to help us see the diversity in belief about origins and the number of scientists who continue to believe regardless of the shattering of their Sunday School level lessons of days past. Tim Stafford of “Christianity Today” has written a very nice, accessible book called “The Adam Quest” where he interviews believers in various scientific fields who hold differing views on the origins of life. Highly recommended. As is “Death Before the Fall” by Ronald Osburn and “The End of Apologetics” by Myron Penner.

 

If the issue is scripture itself and the American Fundamentalist view of it, we have a wealth of material to help us. Words like “inerrant” and “verbally inspired” have confused the Bible with God in many minds to the point where when a reader sees that the story of – to take one of many examples – Peter denying Jesus is given to us with different orders of events, numbers, and settings according to which Gospel one reads…they begin to wonder about their book and that has the same effect of making them wonder about their God. [an aside to illustrate: when I first starting hearing about NT Wright many years ago, I dismissed him out of hand without even reading a word he had written. Why? He was Episcopalian. How could someone from a faith that didn’t believe in the absolute inerrancy of scripture have anything to say to me? I have since learned that he had quite a lot to say to me!]

 

I recommend several books on this topic. One would be NT Wright’s “The Last Word.” Another would be Christian Smith’s “The Bible Made Impossible” or Michael Graves’ “The Inspiration and Interpretation of Scripture” or Kenton Sparks’ “God’s Word in Human Words” or Peter Enns’ “Inspiration and Incarnation.”

 

If they are struggling with how a good God could allow terrible things to happen to them or to the world in general, I suggest Greg Boyd’s “God at War” and “God of the Possible” along with “God in an Open Universe” by William Hasker and Thomas Jay Oord (warning – science content!) as well as a variety of books by John Sanders and Clark Pinnock.

 

If they believe in Jesus but think the church was just a bad idea, get them “A Gathered People” by John Mark Hicks, Bobby Valentine, and Johnny Melton. I’d recommend other books but this one rises so high above the others I’ve read that I’ll leave this list at one. [feel free to suggest others, however]

 

There are a lot of reasons why the road to Emmaus is crowded. If we don’t get a handle on it – even if we have to make uncomfortable changes in our own beliefs, ones more in line with truth and less in line with tradition and teachings that rose in the 1800s – we will find the church becoming irrelevant to more and more people and atheists and “nothings” becoming more and more common, even among our own children.

 

But Jesus will always be the Christ. The church will always be His bride. We need both of them and so do those on the road away from us. It’s time to launch a search and rescue team on the Emmaus road.

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A Love Story

 

It’s February…so it’s time for a love story.

 

 

And first, it’s a love story that had gone terribly wrong. A woman is caught in the act of adultery. She wasn’t alone but the man is never mentioned and plays no part in our story. We aren’t given any background on the woman or why she was with the man. He might have been a kind man who loved her and who wooed her or he might have been a client and she a prostitute. If you’re already thinking this isn’t much of a love story, you’re right but don’t pull that trigger yet. It gets better.

 

 

Women who were widowed often found themselves unable to feed themselves or their children. If another man did not come along to marry them and if they could not return to their father’s house for some reason they would sometimes turn to prostitution to survive. No welfare system or Social Security safety net was in place. Patriarchs of the Old Testament were not above using these women and discarding them afterward. Life can be brutal and it would be harder to imagine a harder life than that of a prostitute in first century Judea.

 

 

But she might not have been one. In the end, it doesn’t matter. That isn’t important to the love story we want to tell.

 

 

It is a story we almost didn’t get. It is in John’s Gospel but he didn’t write it. Before the sixth century, it almost never shows up in manuscripts and commenters didn’t mention it. But John himself said he didn’t write down everything that Jesus said and did and the story was important enough to early Christians to repeat and cherish until it was finally absorbed into our story at the beginning of John 8. Whew. That was a close one.

 

 

The woman is dragged before Jesus. Imagine her as you will. Some see her as angry and defiant. I see her as embarrassed, shamed, and broken hearted. Still, that doesn’t matter as much as what happens next. The men who caught her and dragged her before the young rabbi demanded to know what he would have done with her. The Old Testament law, they remind him, requires them to stone her to death for her sins. The rabbi wrote something in the dirt and then agreed with them. She deserved to die. Grab some rocks, boys. But first…he adds…let’s let the one who has no sins throw the first stone. Believe it or not, throwing the first stone was a bit of an honor as was holding the coats of those who threw the stones. All the rabbi asked was that someone throw the rock who didn’t deserve rocks thrown at him, too. He then stooped back down and wrote some more.

 

 

What did he write? That has been an object of speculation for a long time. Very early Jewish and Christian sources say he wrote the sins of those men standing there – you know, something like “Last Tuesday behind the market stall…A week ago, in a house down this street, when no one else was looking…” Stuff like that. One by one, the men dropped the rocks they were holding until even the youngest remembered his own sins, dropped the rock, and walked away.

 

 

The rabbi – and you know we are speaking of Jesus here – looked at the woman and asked her “Where are those who condemn you?” She is stunned at this turn of events and you can hear it in her reply that “They are gone. No one is here.” He then says something which makes this a love story. He says “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.”

 

 

Whether this is a love story or not depends on which side of that rabbi’s statement you focus on. Most of the churches where I was raised would mention the forgiveness but make it dependent on that woman not sinning like that again but they got it wrong. Notice something very deep, very profound and, if I may say so, quite stunning: he forgives her and refuses to condemn her before even telling her to quit sinning. The forgiveness was automatic and came first.

 

 

It is a love story because of that. It is a love story because his hands were empty of stones and his arms were open before she changed a single thing in her life.

 

 

When a woman with uterine bleeding touched him in a crowd, Jesus had the right to pick up a rock and throw it at her. In fact, that was the law for she was breaking several Old Testament laws by being in public and daring to touch a man – a rabbi, even! But Jesus not only refused to pick up a rock, he opened his arms and called her “daughter,” the only person he called that sweet name in scripture.

 

 

Empty hands. Open arms.

 

 

When Peter denied Jesus three times in the very area where Jesus was being mistreated and brutalized he could expect nothing from a risen Lord other than pain and punishment. But he didn’t get it. Jesus asked to meet with him (Mark 16:7) and they had a private meeting. Jesus refused to punish Peter or cut him from his inner circle of close friends even after his horrible betrayal of him. Jesus met him with forgiveness and inclusion, not with stones and fists.

 

 

When we speak of these things we can make Christians nervous. “Are you weak on sin?” they ask. “Don’t you take sin seriously?” Of course I take sin seriously. I think we should be absolutely ruthless in confronting sin.

 

 

Our own sin.

 

 

Not that of others.

 

 

Others need a love story. And they get it in Jesus and in those who live like Jesus.

 

 

So when do we confront their sins? Jesus gave us the answer to that in Luke 6:41,42. You may go after their sin when you have none in your life. Period. Until then, love them and confront your own sin.

 

 

You see, if you have stones in your hands you have no way to receive the blessings he brings. It reminds me of the widow in 2 Kings 4. Told by the prophet that he will bless her, she brings in borrowed pots from her neighbors and the prophet prays. God answers by miraculously filling the pots with precious oil. He filled every pot she had brought before Him and no pot she didn’t. In other words, her blessing was limited by her openness and faith. That isn’t unusual. It is life. God will fill your hands and hearts with good things but you have to drop the rocks first or you can’t hold them.

 

 

Loving like this takes courage. Some will accuse you of winking at sin. Others will come at you as accepting the wrong kind of people or baptizing those who haven’t become perfect or nearly so.

 

 

But Jesus forgave first. Then he admonished. And he admonished us, too, to love each other, be known as his followers by the way we love each other, and to refuse to pick at each other’s sins until we are clear of sins ourselves.

 

 

Empty hands.

 

 

Open arms.

 

 

Open hearts.

 

 

And that makes this a love story.

 

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Shaped in Fire, Wind, and Rain

My wife and I recently flew from Denver to Seattle on a clear day where the Rocky Mountains were revealed in all their High Definition glory. We’ve made that flight many times before but never with the air this clear, the scenery so sharply detailed below us. As we followed along with the flight tracker on our iPads, we named rivers, towns, and mountains from 38,000 ft. above sea level, 24,000ft above the higher peaks. I pointed out mountains that had blown out, leaving a bowl shaped caldera now filled with snow and debris. We saw the tracks of great ice flows, ancient rivers, debris fields and primeval earthquakes that broke the land and twisted the surface, redirecting water and wind, both of which, in their turn, shaped the land even more.

It was a scene of indescribable beauty but that beauty could be deceptive; much of it had been created through violence, calamity, and force. A great deal of the shaping had been done more gently, one gust of wind at a time, one drop of rain at a time but it would be foolish to ignore the rifts in great rock seams and the displacement of millions of metric tons of earth. I was reminded that much of the land that once made up modern Arizona can be found in Nevada and California where it was carried along by an ancient sea that became a mighty river that has since disappeared, leaving only its tracks and a debris field the size of some European countries. Whether one believes this was all accomplished during the Flood of Noah or through a countless number of floods through the millennia – it was dramatic and violent and it left tracks.

Our youth sing “Lord, change my life” and I have heard the plea of the Psalmist to “Search me and know me” uttered as if it were a platitude instead of an invitation to reinvention. Let me be plain: I am not one of those who laugh and say “If you ask God for something, watch out! He might give it to you!” I don’t think God plays games with us like Thor or Loki or Zeus. He is God, righteous and holy and true, self-defined as the personification of love. Still, God has the right to shape us and form us into someone He can and will work with, bending us on His potter’s wheel. Sometimes, that shaping will be gentle; allowing us to turn as He barely touches us. At other times, He will have to grab us; squash us, slap us down on the wheel, and start again. Perhaps you’ve experienced that.

A divorce that came out of nowhere and left you staggering, lost, a metaphysical “D” on your forehead that you believed would mark you forever as a failure.  A job loss, a betrayal by a friend, the death of a child, the death of a dream…most of us have been there. Most of us have had the top of our lives suddenly explode leaving us with a caldera in our heart. I would submit that most of those events were sourced, not in God, but in our decisions of the decisions of others around us but others came out of nowhere – a virus, cancer, a stroke. God was there to literally pick up the pieces, but we were changed. As another popular song says “[We] will never be the same again.”

But most of the shaping in our lives has not been violent. Most of it has been through the gentle action of God in our lives and in the world around us. We’ve been shaped by the gifts of God, by our family, by the community of faith and by the day to day pull of the Spirit. Like a drop of rain that displaces a grain of sand and moves it just a millimeter further down the mountain, we are being changed from who and what we are into…something else, something that has not yet been made clear. We are being translated. We are being transformed, not in a “Ta-dah!” moment but a single idea at a time, a single cell, a single action. And so I pray daily, “Lord, help me to be a little better today. Help me to be a little bit less like me and a little bit more like you.” And sometimes I add “But move slowly. Be gentle. I bruise easily and fear that I could break.”

As we flew over the mountains, I told my wife “It is beautiful, but if those were people and not mountains, we would treat it as a crime scene; we would say there were signs of violence below us.” It is through faith that we believe that all of those pressures and events that blew us up, displaced us, broke us into pieces, threw upheaval into the middle of our placid lives, and shifted us further down a road whose end we cannot see are safe in the hands of a God who loves us. Whether He sent the volcanoes in our lives or whether they were placed there by the world, the flesh, and the devil is beside the point right now. What IS the point is that even these signs of violence in our lives can become things of beauty when we invite the Master to put His hands into our lives and shape us to His purpose. “Lord, change my life…”

Yesterday, I drove my truck up to an elevation of 10,000 feet in the mountains behind Pikes Peak to the towns of Winter Park and Florrisant. Geologists from all over the world come here to dig up fossils in the incredibly rich beds found in this high country. The animals that left their bones here long ago lived in a swampy, fetid, humid climate when the top of this mountain was down below sea level. They are all gone now. Fact is, from the bones we’ve found worldwide it is estimated that more than 90% of all species that ever lived are now extinct. Their habitats are gone and so are they. It seems that if you crave safety and security, you were born into the wrong universe.

But if you believe in a God who is greater than our lives, greater than this planet, and greater than anything you can imagine you will also believe that His imagination can and will shape you – through or in spite of tragedies, suddenly or a molecule at a time – into who you should be if you invite His hands into your life. Just as He did to the Rockies, He can take whatever happens and turn it into something that is so beautiful it will take your breath away.

Some people see the face of Jesus in a piece of burned toast. I pray that God – and the world – will be able to look at my scars and see, not tragedy, but beauty – the hand of God.

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