Epiphany at Waffle House

By Michael Rivera (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Some years ago, I was walking around a lake in despair.  There were some compulsive things in my life that I couldn’t control.

For some time, I held hope that through prayer, reading, and resolve, I would be able to overcome the downward pull to make my way to perfection.  Yet I would find myself tripping over the same thing over and over again.

This walk around the lake was different.  When I had stumbled in the past, I always felt I had the tools to rebuild.  I would read more spiritual books.  I would study Romans 6.  I would take vacations to do nothing but pray and meditate.  Yet walking around this lake, it was the first time that I had the sense and realization that I would not be able to get beyond this on my own.  It was my taste of powerlessness.

I got in my car and went to dinner, stopping at a Waffle House.  I don’t know if he got there first or I but I sat down next to a black man and we got to talking.  He had been in the church of the science fiction writer out in Los Angeles and apparently made his way up the ranks.  Somehow (I forget the details), he made his way out and encountered the announcement of Jesus Christ and his life was changed.

I told him of my troubles being general not to give away personal information or open my heart to shame.

I don’t remember all what was said but I do remember very distinctly him looking straight at me, speaking softly with a radiant face, and saying, “Only Jesus.  Only Jesus.  Only Jesus.”

It wasn’t a detailed action plan or a manual on right living or motivation for better discipline.  Rather it was an existential experience–triggering an awareness of this One greater than myself who would one day restore me to sanity.  Only Jesus.  Only Jesus.  Only Jesus.

He left as I finished my dinner.  On a whim, I looked out to see him get into his car but I never saw him.  I tried to call him some time later but never found him.

Over time,  I stumbled upon a group who understood my struggles.  A brother over time helped me see where I got off course and how I could day by day, moment by moment stay in good spiritual condition.  I came to embrace the powerlessness I felt against the lure of my worst nature and trust a God who can use people in my life to enact genuine spiritual change.

The thing that devastated me as I walked around the lake so many years ago is no longer a concern.  Far from a sinless perfectionism, I find that there are many things I cannot control and over which I have no power.  Yet in those times, I see the shining face of the man at the waffle house saying gently, “Only Jesus.  Only Jesus.  Only Jesus.”

The Problem of Being Faithful

When I was in the One True Church, I lived in a Brother’s House.  This was where a bunch of us Christian guys lived together with a family so

By James N. McCord. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

that we could be made into godly men.  We did this by attending lots and lots of meetings and doing lots and lots of stewardships.

Stewardships are basically chores except stewardships sounds much more Biblical – especially if you read the King James Bible.  We had a notebook of index cards called standards.  Each standard gave instructions on how to do the stewardships.  Further, one of the brothers was appointed head-steward so he had the extra responsibility of checking our stewardships to see if they rose up to the standard.

If our stewardships didn’t meet the standard, we got consequences.  The purpose of consequences was to encourage us to take the time to do the stewardships perfectly in the first place by giving us even less time because we had to do our consequences in addition to our stewardships and all of the meetings.

Brother Faithful rarely got consequences.  He always seemed to joyfully uphold the standards.  He was up at five in the morning doing his Bible reading and prayer before we all stumbled out for house devotions.  He made sure we didn’t miss a speck when cleaning the bathroom sink and to finish it off by shining it up with a paper towel.  He made us sing while doing the dishes after dinner.

I, on the other hand, did get consequences.  In one case, my consequence was to work with another offending brother in taking hand-written recipes and typing them onto index cards.

To entertain ourselves, we wondered how creative we could be in our descriptions.  For example, instead of typing one teaspoon of salt, we put down one teaspoon NaCl which is the chemical symbol for sodium chloride better known as salt.  I was toying with the idea of putting in as a fake last step to the chef salad recipe to place all the ingredients in the blender and puree for ten minutes but the other offending brother reminded me such an act could result in doing consequences until Jesus returned.

One evening when the brothers returned from work, Brother Faithful was already in the kitchen making dinner.  He had a medium sized pot full of ice that he was heating up.

“What are you doing, brother?”  asked one of the brothers.

Brother Faithful showed us the recipe card and the place where the standard called for two cups of thawed ice.

We stifled a laugh, held our composure and went on our way.

I wonder if Brother Faithful ever pulled the recipe calling for three cups of condensed steam.

 

 

 

Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Men?

Julia Margaret Cameron [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In the mid-1800’s, many in the church thought the world was getting better and better.  Society would improve and wrongs would be overcome through social action.  This transformation of society would bring in a new millennium that would usher in the return and reign of Christ.

The Civil War changed that.  Whatever hope people had for the gradual improvement of society and the bringing forth of a new age through social action was dashed at this display of the hardened conflict of ideals manifested in the vast carnage of man’s inhumanity to man.

Henry Longfellow was not as much caught up in the theology of the moment.  For the poet Longfellow, this was personal.  His wife of eighteen years died tragically in a fire.  Then his son Charles, without discussion or permission, left to join the Union army.   On Christmas Day in 1863, Henry Longfellow, torn between a cynical lashing out and a helpless need for comfort penned these word:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

Lashing out in hurt and anger is part of the human experience.  I don’t always get what I want and my version of life does not always prevail.  For Longfellow, the war raged on;  his son was badly injured.

Nevertheless, the poem ends with Longfellow’s willingness to unclench his fist.  He was willing to listen to a voice that was not his own head and  to humbly acknowledge  Someone bigger and a narrative more transcendent.

In Search of the One True Santa Claus

Santa Claus in Chicago Douglas Rahden [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons

As Christmas approached, my mom would take me to the month-end sales to try on clothes and visit the various Santa Clauses.  I don’t know what age it was when I moved from the innocent child in the sailor suit to a perceptive thinker and analyst of Saint Nick.

I reasoned that there could only be one true Santa Claus.  Yet I saw a plethora of Santa Clauses on our shopping circuit.  There was at least one in every department store.  Other Santa Clauses were outside ringing bells.  They were on television and in parades.  They were everywhere.

I asked Santa (at least one of them) while sitting on his knee chatting about my needs and wants, why there were so many Santa Clauses.  His reply: “I’m the real Santa Claus.  Those others are my helpers.”

My mom was a depression-era trained bargain hunter, so we hit up several stores looking for sales in the holiday season.  This gave me the opportunity to hook up with several Santa Clauses.  I asked each one the same question and they would all give the same answer – I’m the real one; the others are my helpers.

I wasn’t a math major yet but I knew that only one could be telling the truth.  The

By Florida Memory (Child Looking at Santa on the Beach) [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons

others were liars.  How do I find the one true Santa?

The bell ringers were definitely helpers, perhaps working their way up the ranks to human interaction.  To analyze the sitting Santa Clauses fielding the multitudinous requests of expectant and earnest children that fueled the North Pole order fulfillment, behavior QC, and supply chain management, I needed a sharper technique to determine the wheat from the tares.

I found that after I communicated my gift list and Santa embarked upon his morality soliloquy about being nice and helpful and all that, I could study his beard.  If I figured out how it stuck on, then he was another fake.  One used lip tape.  The other used some sort of string netting I wasn’t supposed to see that tied behind his neck.  As I marched back to my mother who was declining the photo package, I would proudly inform her, “He wasn’t the real one.”

My theory was that the real Santa was the one at the fire station.  This Santa Claus was upscale.  He always gave the children a chocolate covered marshmallow Santa figure, not those small peppermint candy canes that required work, sucking, and get stuck in your teeth.  Everyone knows that chocolate trumps hard candy every time.

Further,  he was not tied to a store trying to lure you in to buy perfume and neck ties and a photo package.  At the fire station, they had a lawn full of lights and decorations.  It just felt different and more sincere than the department store Santa crammed behind the Sears insurance booth.

It was like magic as I waited in line among the lights to see the fire station Santa.  I walked by the reindeer, the giant gum drops, and the helping elves.   I went forward and sat on Santa’s knee.

“Hello, David,” he said, “How are you?”

I was flabbergasted and astounded!  “How did you know my name?”  I asked.

“Because,” he said, “I’m Santa Claus.  I know everything.”

Wow!  I was in astonishment as pondered out into the distance.  As I adjusted my gaze, I saw my mother pointing to her shoulder.  I looked down to my shoulder and saw the forgotten paper name tag that said  “David”.

That’s was when I jumped up on his knee, pulled his beard, stared into his beady brown eyes and yelled, “You lying son of a . . .”

OK, I really didn’t do that.  I told him my toy list as they snapped my photo.  I took my chocolate marshmallow Santa and walked with mom to the car.  I felt a little silly that I had forgotten about the name tag.

Some time later, my mom told me there was no Santa – that he was just a story.  My brother came to me later and asked,  “So, they hold you, huh?”

“Yeah,” I replied feeling as if I was supposed to be more devastated than I was.  But I wasn’t sad or disappointed. I had this gig figured out long before and it was really about time that we all agreed to drop the narrative.  It had been a nice way to choose toys but there never seemed to be a correlation between behavior and the quality of gifts that were always labeled “From Santa” in my mom’s handwriting.

No longer would I have to be put to bed for an hour on Christmas eve so they could let Santa in through the front door (a slight modification to the story since we didn’t have a fireplace) only to be allowed back out to a room full of relatives getting tipsy on egg nog while we opened our Christmas eve presents.

I’m not sure if forming an early belief in Santa Claus only to have it dismantled made me better or worse.   But it was fun while it lasted.

Why Am I Not Enjoying the Christmas Season?

By Sander van der Wel from Netherlands ([36/365] Christmas bokeh) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Sander van der Wel from Netherlands ([36/365] Christmas bokeh) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

My holiday season is filled with fun activities – a parade, concerts, dinners, and a carol sing, for example –  and I really want to enjoy them.  Yet it all feels like burdensome work and another item on the tyrannical task list.  Will our house be ready?  Will the bills be paid?  What gift will I find for this person or that?   And we need that final edit and photo for the family newsletter!

Charlie Brown’s angst of Christmas losing its meaning is old news.  After all, we live in a culture where, if anything, Christmas means too much – there is no end to Christmas specials helping us understand the multitudinous  pitches of “the true meaning of Christmas.”

Nevertheless, that isn’t where the problem lay.  Blaming culture is a cop out.   If I am disturbed, says an annoying quote from recovery circles, the problem is with me.

Current  Advent readings draw me back to what is true and substantive.   Unlike our Western propensity to see this dispensation solely as sparkle season, the Advent readings actually pull us to  a place of sparseness looking ahead with expectation but examining our hearts to question:  Is everything right?

Case in point is this morning’s reading highlighting John the Baptist in the deserted wilderness:

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” says John as the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”

Contemplative Christian spirituality is often seen in terms of attachments.  We are surrounded in culture with the prolific voices that are not God clamoring for our attention.  When these driving voices begin to take hold of our hearts enlarging beyond degree our attention on the trivial and the narrow, they become attachments.  When these attachments become strong bonds, they are called addictions.

Here are the major attachments so says some very smart Christians:

  • Wealth – My need to be secure.
  • Honor – My need to be well thought of.
  • Power – My need to be in control.
  • Pleasure – My need to feel good.

None of these things are necessarily bad in and of itself – we all by necessity experience all of these to some degree.  The problem comes when they become so enmeshed in my heart that I am completely given to the distraction and tangential and have completely lost sight of my call to love God with all my hearts, soul and strength and to love my neighbor as myself.

The American holiday season exacerbates the problem of attachments for me.  The extra expenses draws me to be preoccupied with money and making sure everything is budgeted correctly (Wealth).   In social gatherings, I want people to listen to me and think highly of my input (Honor).   I have a large task list of items that need to be done and I want the ability to move people to action or out of my way so I can accomplish my goals (Power).  In my weariness, I want these events to help me feel better, give me a thrill and help my tired soul feel human (Pleasure).

When these attachments don’t deliver the promised satisfaction, I find myself in a daze wondering when the whole, damn holiday season will be over with.

This is why John’s voice from the desert is such a clarifying voice:  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”   When did Advent stop becoming the quiet anticipation for the coming King who sets all things right?  When did Advent suddenly become all about me and my responsibilities?

Bishop Robert Barron says, “Repentance means stop thinking about life as my project.  Start thinking that my life is not about me.  My life belongs to God and serves God’s purposes.  

“All my diversions and attachments are subservient to the idea that my life is all about me; my life is a project of self-satisfaction.”

In the quiet desert morning where John’s exhortations are taken to heart, I look up with a new hope,  I hear the distant promise, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light”.  Advent tells me it is not about me.  Advent tells me there is forward-looking hope that transcends the clutter and the chatter.

Bishop Robert Barron’s full sermon may be found here.

 

Why Gratitude Is a Matter of Life and Death

By Djembayz (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Djembayz (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

I get easily put off by the topic of thanksgiving and gratitude.  I’ve sat through too many Thanksgiving services where parents toddle up their highly precocious and well-behaved kids to the microphone to say something like, “I’m thankful for my family, my fish named Bob, and that Jesus is in my heart,” to a gushing congregation.  

Very nice and precious and all that.  But some of us just aren’t that simplistic.   We live in the real, grown-up world.  We pay bills.  We absorb hurts.  We endure conflict. We fight depression and disappointment.  Life isn’t a cutesy precious moments figurine.

Nevertheless, in spite of the quick-fix hashtag Christianity of balloons and banners where God is like a pithy statement and a warm puppy dog, gratitude isn’t a tool only for the simplistic and childish.  It is a matter of life and death.  

I’ve felt for years that this word of Paul was the pivot upon which all humanity teetered one way or the other:

“For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.” (Romans 1:21).

As a people and as individuals, we can either honor God as God (a truth that may be suppressed but never honestly denied) and set our hearts consistently towards appropriate appreciation of all that we are and have.  Or we can turn away and say “no” in a very real, consistent and direct manner.  It is this latter refusal-over-time that leads mankind to the foolish and darkened heart and the sort of degenerative behavior that Paul lists in the verses that followed.  These behaviors were what Paul thought in his day to be the worst expressions of the outworking of sin.

The cause and effect is important here.  It isn’t as if we can change or legislate deplorable behavior and outward expression in order to turn a nation’s heart to love God.  Rather it is the other way around.  If my heart departs upstream, I will find myself a thousand miles from home downstream and wonder where along the way I turned into a beast.

This is why I say gratitude is a matter of life and death.

Here’s how it works.  If I stop being thankful for a significant period of time and begin to become isolated from myself and others allowing resentment to creep into my heart, I begin to move towards self-pity because, after all, no one understands me.  

From self-pity, I go to entitlement and begin to use the dangerous phrase, “I deserve.”  From there, fantasy sets in to convince myself that it is my choice and right to get what I deserve.  From there, it is a short trip to contempt where I begin to use the nihilistic “whatever” or the harsher “screw it!” as I look in disdain at the less-than people around me.

Once at contempt, what is there to restrain me from any suggestion the devil has to offer?  The unthinkable becomes justifiable on my way to the hell of isolation, shame, and despair.

The fatal path is this:  resentment → self-pity → entitlement → contempt → destructive and hurtful behavior → isolation, shame, and despair

So what knocks us off this degenerative path?  What breaks the spell?  What is the antidote?  

In short, I think, it is gratitude.  I can set aside resentment because God has given me everything I need.  I find self-pity a worthless waste of time because I am richly endowed and find greater joy in being available for others.  I’m not entitled, deserving any more than what I have.  I appreciate, enjoy and utilize what I have.   And what right do I have to show contempt towards a fellow human created in the image of God?

Being older and having experience does not mean that I have mastered this.  It means I learned through trial and much error to recognize sooner the warning signs of when I am getting off track.  I have found the further I get down the degenerative path, the harder it is to resist temptation.  The trick is acknowledging God and intentionally practicing gratitude to get off the path as soon as I can.  Battling sin is always more successful the farther I am up the way.

How to Drop a Perfect Pumpkin Pie

pieMy mother thought of pumpkin pie as a health food.  Technically, pumpkin is a fruit and if she substituted the sugar with some sort of artificial sweetener, we would stave off diabetes by dying of cancer.  It was a joyful autumn evening (or as autumn as you can get in Southern California) to have a dinner of split pea soup and a large slab of pumpkin pie.

I think this was why I was so intent on making pumpkin pies for our first Thanksgiving after our marriage thirty years ago.   I was taking my bride to my brother’s house, a tradition my side of the family had enjoyed since he got married some years earlier.

I didn’t exactly know how to make a pumpkin pie though I did have a large can of generic brand pumpkin – the kind where you saved a few cents but didn’t get the recipes printed on the back.

So, I drove to the local supermarket to copy a recipe off of a higher priced can.  Of course, it would have helped if I brought a pencil or pen.  Nevertheless, I borrowed what I needed from an annoyed and impatient fellow shopper and I was set.

It was much easier than I thought as cooking had evolved from an activity involving skill to simply mixing chemicals.  The finished product looked remarkably like pumpkin pies and I stored them in the storage refrigerator for the trip out to dinner.

When it was time to leave, I went down to retrieve the pies.  I put one on one hand and scooped the other pie up on the other.  The first pie started to feel wobbly so I instinctively moved the other hand to steady the first pie making the second pie feel wobbly.  Between my two wobbly pies and my unsuccessful attempts to steady the opposite pie without making the condition of the first pie more precarious, they both landed face down on the floor.

I was so angry and beside myself that my wife had to tickle me in order to settle me down and be willing to enjoy our first Thanksgiving together without pie.

Some years later, now only a few years ago, we were making our way to a small group for a near-Thanksgiving dinner and bonfire.  We somehow inherited, in the ancient archive section of our pantry, a can of pumpkin pie mix.  We never made it up for ourselves fearing the dubious ingredient but figured it was within the realm of Christian love and charity to make it up for others so they can enjoy it as they develop cancer and diabetes.

Thankfully, it was easier to make than the earlier pies because all the chemicals came in one can and all you had to do was add eggs.

When done, I loaded the wife and a very big dog into the car.  We wisely put the pies in the back of the hatchback where the curious canine couldn’t get to it.  When we arrived, I pulled up the hatch to remove the pies.  Suddenly, our Great Dane got a whiff of another dog, leaped over the back seats, squeezed through the hatch and after the dog.

I now had two pies with two massive paw prints in the center.

Perhaps I had grown spiritually as this time I didn’t get angry but simply laughed.

As I write, another pumpkin pie is baking in the oven.  Next to the oven is our kitchen trash can.  When the pie is done, I’ll conveniently drop it into the trash.  This will save time and frustration.


Pumpkin Pie recipe I use today.  This is good if you don’t want wheat (gluten) or very much sugar in your diet.

Crust

Ground pecan meal (we buy it from a nut truck but can easily be made by grinding pecans in a food processor):  I use I guess about a cup or so – just eyeball what will line my pie pan.  Note:  other recipes are out there using almond flour.

Butter: I grabbed about a half a stick, melted it, and mixed with the ground pecan meal in the pie pan.

Mix and press into the pie pan until it looks sort of thinned out enough and symmetrical though it will be covered with pumpkin and no one will really notice.

Bake 10 minutes at 325 to make it a little toasty.

Filling

Pumpkin – About two cups. Can use a can of pumpkin or I like to throw a pie pumpkin in an Instant Pot pressure cooker for 10 minutes on manual with a 1/2 cup of water inside.

3/4 cups coconut milk or I like to use a 5.4 ounce can of coconut cream.

1/2 cup honey

3 eggs

2 teaspoons of pumpkin pie spice.  I tend to put in a teaspoon or two of cinnamon, 1/4 t to 1/2 t of nutmeg, 1/4 t to 1/2 t of ground cloves, 1/4 t to 1/2 t of ginger,  Recipes vary widely on the spicing so I think there is latitude.  Pumpkin pie (or harvest) spice tend to be some sort of combination of cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and ginger.  Cinnamon is the predominant spice.

1/2 t salt

Mix it all up with a hand mixer.  Put filling in pie crust above and cook at 325 degrees for 50 minutes or until the pie is set.

Topping

For a treat, get a small container of heavy whipping cream and whip until firm.  Not too firm – that is called butter.  Just enough for when you lift the mixer out and the peaks still hold.  You don’t need to add anything else to the cream though a cap full of vanilla extract is nice.

 

Top That Testimony

By Taber Andrew Bain (Flickr: "Jesus Saves" in Neon) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Taber Andrew Bain (Flickr: “Jesus Saves” in Neon) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

When I was in the One True Church, it was very important that we all had a testimony.  Once a year, we would set a tent up in the middle of a park to preach the gospel to ourselves.  We actually intended to preach the gospel to the community but few actually came as it was a long walk from the Thrifty drug store across the street and traversing a long stretch of grass to a tent surrounded by greeters in coats and ties was a bit off-putting.

Nevertheless, we had a good time because we got to hear the gospel, see our friends play gospel music or do a gospel mime, and hear the personal testimony from friends at our church.

Testimonies certainly are not limited to the One True Church or tent meetings.  Many Christians put emphasis on testimony for the simple reason that, quite frankly, we believe that Jesus changes lives for the good.  Having listened to many testimonies in my day, it seems pretty evident that He does.

In my earlier days, I had testimony envy.  I didn’t think my story was very dramatic.  In eighth grade, I didn’t have a lot of self-awareness of the extent of my sin (that came later).   My brother called me into the room to share a gospel-in-four-easy-steps tract and I was committed without any angst or reservation.  Perhaps the testimony of God’s working lay in the fact that I was so prepared and ready and that God kept me interested through so many years of ups and downs, triumphs, and discouragements.

But back in the One True Church, a bunch of guys were hanging out and the conversation turned to who might have the best testimony.  Could anyone tell of laying in the gutter in a drunken stupor drowning in filth whereupon a cockroach crept by tugging along a gospel tract?  Could anyone say they were on the edge of a precipice ready to jump when he felt the arms of an angel pulling him back to safety?  Was any like  Paul intent on destroying the church until he was knocked to the ground by a great blaze of light?

The winner in this conversation ended up going to a young man who worked in a convalescent hospital.  When working in the kitchen, he slipped and fell into the trash chute that led to the trash grinder at the bottom.  He caught himself on the side of the chute and would inch himself to the top but just as he would reach his arm out of the opening to grab hold of something solid, he would accidentally cycle on the grinder that would suck him further down into the chute.   Somewhere in the struggle, he received Christ.

“Dear Jesus. (puff, puff)  I admit (puff, puff) that I am a sinner.”

Click!  Whrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.

(Moments of climbing later)

“And I believe (puff, puff)   that you died (puff, puff)  for my sins.”

Click!  Whrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.

(Moments climbing later)

“Please (puff, puff)   come into my  . . . ”

Click!  Whrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.

 

Testimonies are a good thing in the Christian tradition because it is insightful on how a life can be brought from despair to joy.  However, a changed life is not unique to Christianity.  Testimonies abound from people whose lives were change by yoga, twelve step groups, or multi-level marketed vitamins and oils.

What makes Christianity unique is not simply that it changes lives but that it proclaims to the world an announcement that is so transcendent and so up-ending to the political and religious constructs of men and women that to call it revolutionary would be the ultimate in understatement.

The announcement in short hand is:  Jesus is Lord.  A longer version is that Jesus, an actual historical human who made footprints in the sand roughly two thousand years ago is in fact the singular monotheistic God who created all that exists and claims precedent and authority over every other political, spiritual, or religious system of thought.  “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand,” said Jesus which means, “The ultimate kingdom has the values and goals that I, the king, says it does and you need to be prepared to conform your values and goals to it.”

Heavy stuff.  Quite the announcement.  One that would be indeed treasonous if not preposterous unless He was indeed God incarnate in the flesh.

Reading the Bible from this vantage point will deliver us from seeing the Scriptures as a self-help book that helps us live more enjoyable lives.  Rather, it proclaims a transcendent declaration of God’s plan for the ages – from creation by Christ to consummation in Christ and the various historical stages in between – and His rightful expectation of and vision for the very creation He made.

Does Jesus go about doing good changing lives?  Of course.  But even if our lives don’t change as we hope, even if we are struck with horrific injustices from which we are not delivered,  and even if we are forced to faced our own mortality, the weighty announcement that Jesus is Lord is our hope that all will come to a glorious end.


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When The Sun Comes Over the Hill

Gustave Doré [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Gustave Doré [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

When Jacob braced himself for the presumed final showdown with his angry brother Esau, he rose up to institute his strategy (Genesis 32:22) because that is what Jacob does.

His life was characterized as a man who remained in control.  He kept others off balance, a bent of his personality that focused on getting what he wanted.

At birth, he came forth clutching his older twin’s heal and was thus named Jacob or “one who snatches by the heal”.   He became the person who trips others up, who gets others off balance, the one whose words appear perfectly sound but somehow fuel a self-serving interest.

He tricked his older brother Esau out of his birthright and inheritance.  He stole the patriarchal blessing meant for the older twin.  He managed the work-for-wives and work-for-cattle program with his uncle Laban to always come out ahead.  Now it seems he had manipulated himself into a corner.  Esau was charging towards him and that could only mean bad news.  Even here he employed a strategy to cut his losses.

“Do not fear, thou worm Jacob!”  (Isaiah 41:14).  For God must have seen in Jacob a heart that wanted the things that God valued.  To Jacob, His calling mattered.  God’s inheritance mattered.  His sacrifices to God mattered.  God’s blessings mattered.  God Himself mattered.

Jacob was left alone on the mountain to face himself and think.  At this point, a man appeared out of nowhere (Genesis does this) to wrestle with him – perhaps an angel  some say or perhaps a preincarnate appearance of Christ others say.

The match was a lesson in prevailing but not in a way we might think.  Jacob didn’t overthrow his opponent.  Rather this mysterious man deadened Jacob’s thigh (the strongest muscle in the body symbolizing the best of our strength) so all Jacob could do was cling and hold on.  All night, where God went, Jacob went, clinging in utter dependence.

The picture isn’t suggesting that strategy, taking action, and working towards our goals are bad or that we should resign ourselves to a life of passivity.  But what it does suggest is that the best of our strength is not the means to prevail before God.  Rather, it is in our dependence,  our trust, our clinging to God in need, and our leaning upon Him.   We pray not because we are overcomers to stir up the flesh to action.  We pray because we are the helpless widow who would be lost if God didn’t intervene on our behalf.  (Luke 18:3).

Jacob didn’t walk away perfect.  Later in life, he was prone to self-pity – another form of manipulation.  Nevertheless, he was different.  In this realization of weakness, limitation and true humility, his name was changed from Jacob, the heel-snatcher and manipulator, to  Israel, the one who prevails with God.

The story began with Jacob rising up the hill to accomplish his plan.  Now, as Jacob limped down the hill, interrupted, stripped of his control, and leaning on his staff, it was the sun that rose upon him.  (Genesis 32:31)  The sun had finally come over the hill.


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The Dogs of Rage

By Jose Rocha from Rio de Janeiro, Brasil (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Jose Rocha from Rio de Janeiro, Brasil (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Each morning in the darkness, a very large dog and a mid-sized backup dog stare me awake for their trip to the doggy park.    One of us grabs coffee and the rest pile into the car.

I jog the perimeter of the park and do mild attempts with a twenty-five pound kettlebell.  The dogs do dog things prancing in the morning mist lit by a lone street lamp.

Soon two headlights creep up the gravel road along side the park putting the dogs into high alert.  The dogs of rage have arrived.  Nothing is said.  The hour has come.

The dogs of rage burst into the small, secluded puppy area, a mere chain link fence away.  They are kept in isolation.  They cannot socialize.  They give off an aura that incites confrontation and outburst of emotion.

The dogs on both sides of the fence thrust into attack running up and down along side the barrier, mouths foaming spewing a thick volley of doggy trash talk.  It is a battle yet a game.  It is a struggle for dominance fueled by anger of the deepest innermost rage to accomplish a seemingly sublime goal that in the end is insignificant and offers no benefit to the world about them.  Kind of like football, come to think of it.

We let it play out and I thought about a man who always seemed to be contentious and on the attack.  I saw him harshly confront a young lady over an innocent side comment she made the week before reducing her to tears.  When I asked about this man people rolled their eyes and said he was just this way.  A thoughtful brother told me that there was a part of this man that the Lord was working on that has merit and beauty.

I don’t know what made the man the way he is.  But I did see him once break down and weep at the thought that he was reading the very words of Jesus.  And another time I saw his generous spirit helping someone in need.

The dogs reached their cardiovascular limits.  They lost interest in the fight and breathed heavily in the morning air.  The big dog and the mid-sized backup dog followed me as we jogged down the hill to do another lap around the perimeter.

I’ve thought of the many times over the years where my mind fell into a bad place resulting in an abusive burst of angry rage hurting those about me and shaming myself.  I thought I would be beyond this after all these years.  I’ve explored various helps from physiological to psychological to spiritual and certainly have found some help in self-management, identifying triggers, trusting God’s benevolence, and realizing the broken pathways in my thinking.

Nevertheless, when Jesus freed the demoniac, the demons fled into the pigs and tumbled over the side of the cliff with a sense of finality.  I think my demons still hide in the bushes waiting for an opportune time when I have my guard down.

I chatted with the owners of the dogs of rage, two sweet women.  They rescued these two black dogs from abusive situations.  The trauma was so bad that they will never be normal dogs.  The insecurity and harsh reactiveness is, at least for now, hard wired.  Yet each morning, the women look beyond the obvious exterior and see the beauty in two of God’s creatures.

That Sunday as we brought our broken and contradictory selves to the communion table, I heard this:

How deep the Father’s love for us
How vast beyond all measure
That He should give His only Son
To make a wretch his treasure

Behold the Man upon a cross
My sin upon His shoulders
Ashamed I hear my mocking voice
Call out among the scoffers

Why should I gain from His reward?
I cannot give an answer
But this I know with all my heart
His wounds have paid my ransom