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

Witnessing For Jesus

tractI’ve never been very good at witnessing.  I’ve never very much liked it.

I was raised in a family where I was taught to interpret conflict or confrontation as something wrong with me (I’ve never quite gotten over that pathology) so putting myself in the position where cherished beliefs collide was not my idea of a good time.

When my brother witnessed to me, sharing a four-easy-steps gospel tract and I became a Christian, I would go into his room and read all the books he had on what Christians were supposed to do.  There were many things that appealed to me – reading and learning the Bible, prayer, loving others, confessing sin, and letting the Holy Spirit guide my life, for instance.    However, it was this insistence that I need to  engage in the practice of going up to people I don’t know and tell them what the’re not interested in hearing that caused me to take a deep breath, suck it up, and be willing to take up my cross.

I tried.  I really did.  When I joined the One True Church, I had lots of opportunities.  We would go out every Friday night to talk to people on the local ocean pier.  We would go into parks and knock on doors in neighborhoods, Bible in hand, ready to share promises and lead inquirers to Jesus.

But the most opportune of all was our college ministry.  The campus, after all, was a whole mission field of impressionable minds at life’s crossroads.  We would pray earnestly for revival to bring our University campus to Christ.  We had a Bible study, a prayer meeting, discipleship groups, and (you guessed it) times of witnessing.  I would spend hours at the book table armed with tracts hoping to be a part of Jesus’ Great Commission with very little fruit to show for it.

The problem is, I’m kind of the Charlie Brown of witnessing, the one no one really takes seriously.  My witnessing would be similar to his It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown trick-or-treat experience:

Brother:  I ran into these high school kids hanging out and I talked with them and three of them received Christ!  Praise the Lord!

Sister:  There was this obnoxious woman at the gym and I prayed for the love of Christ and after sharing with her, she became a Christian and is now going to church with me!  Praise the Lord!

Me:  I got a rock.

Brother:  I’ve been sharing with my boss and he got really interested in the Bible and is coming to the Bible Study.  Praise the Lord!

Sister:  I shared with the girl at McDonald’s and she got so convicted that at her break she came out and talked with me and wants to know more about Jesus.  Praise the Lord!

Me:  I got a rock.

I don’t know why some people encounter the work of the Holy Spirit opening the eyes and convicting the heart while I only get looks of incomprehension of incredulity.   I don’t think I was speaking Yiddish but perhaps I was just not as self-aware as I thought I was.

To some, witnessing isn’t quite as big of a deal.  They believe that God choose those who are going to be Christians an eternity ago and its just a matter of getting out the draft notices.  I suppose the postal service would suffice for this.

Others, on the other hand,  feel that if someone dies without knowledge of Christ to face an eternity of harrowing judgment, it really comes down to being my fault for not doing a better job of witnessing, persuading, and otherwise getting the word out.  I really like to believe that the God who crafted the intricacies of the atom as well as the expanse of interstellar space is not resting the central supply chain of His salvation message on my dubious skills of proclamation.

Jesus said some sow and others reap.  I’m still trying to figure out how to get the garden shed door open.

The Importance of Being Macho

vanI knew a macho guy and he drove a macho van.

I met Macho Guy when I was going to Surfer Dude High School where we both pretended that we were on the soccer team but spent most of the time sitting on the bench.   We sat in the back of chemistry class worrying that we needed to secure a girl friend before the following year to take to grad night otherwise, well, we just could not imagine.

Macho Guy had a macho blue Ford camper van.  This was back in the days when high school students didn’t tend to own cars.  Several times he suggested I should join him with his other older macho friends on a camping trip down to the south county beach where they did macho things such as fishing and drinking beer and climbing on rocks around the tide pools.

It got to the point, in our little circle of friends, that all we had to do was sit on a bench as if a rock, rest one fist on one leg, the other arm on the other leg tilting that shoulder slightly forward, and then saying with a chiseled, serious face, “Let me ask you something, babe,” and we all burst out laughing.  We knew we were making fun of Macho Guy.

Honestly, I’m not exactly sure what made it so funny.  There is nothing wrong with being manly and macho.  There is nothing wrong with doing manly and macho things.  There is nothing wrong with taking steps to look manly and macho.

Yet with Macho Guy, something just didn’t fit well.  Perhaps the hilarity was in his overcompensation.

By senior year, we both had girl friends and decided to drive together with our dates to grad night in Macho Guy’s macho blue Ford camper van.   It started at Macho Guy’s house where his ultra-permissive yet demanding mom insisted we begin the night with a toast of champagne.   His father, who always struck me as passive and emotionally withdrawn, quietly responded to her orders.  The three of us declined but Macho Guy drank on our behalf.

We got into the macho blue Ford camper van and we were off.  We headed for a port where we would get on a boat that would take us to a little resort island two hours off the coast for a dance and dinner.  The macho blue Ford camper van rattled away as we made our way up the freeway into the next county.

Arriving at the port did not go smoothly for Macho Guy.   When he parked, he did not simply bump the cement parking stop at the end of the parking space.  He did not merely come in so hard so as to lift a tire up upon this cement divider.  When Macho Guy pulled into the parking space with his macho blue Ford camper van, he drove completely over the cement stop with all four tires.

This is when we first suspected that there was something amiss with Macho Guy.

A bit shaken and cautious, we got on board and the boat churned towards the island.  Since this was an official school function, someone smuggled beer on board.  We told Macho Guy that it wasn’t a good idea for him to drink but he protested vehemently that he had been on boats all of his life and had drank on several occasions so he knew what he was doing.

Later at the pavilion in the transition between the dance and late night dinner, I went to the restroom to freshen up.  I washed, straightened, and combed the hair.  As I was leaving, upon a glance, I made the observation that the guy lying on the floor wrapped around the toilet bowl happened to have the exact same jacket that Macho Guy was wearing.  I marveled at the coincidence and headed towards the bathroom exit until reality hit.

In the early morning hours, we all rode the boat back to the port as the sun was just breaking over the horizon.  I watched the sunrise with my girl friend not realizing that we would all grow up and go our separate ways.  In the background, Macho Guy was protesting to his now ex-girl friend,  “Give me a break!  This was just one mistake!  One mistake!  Can’t you forgive a guy?”  But it was too late; she was looking to break up anyway and now had the reason.

After graduation, he had a stint in the military and a couple of marriages and then I lost touch.  The last time we talked he had just gotten engaged again and was going on and on about the secret of life was to be happy and that he was happy and he wanted to know if I was happy.  It still  just didn’t feel real.

There are those in life who from a young age have a firm sense of self, know who they are and what they are called to do, and go on to achieve definitive things.  These, frankly, are the few.

There are others who after a time of immaturity, let go of idealized images of themselves, make peace with their strengths and weaknesses, and spend their present moments accepting life on life’s terms, doing honest work, engaging in relationships, and providing for others.

And still there may be others projecting something they were never meant to be while desperately trying to find the road.

Letters To My Smokin’ Hot Wife

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AOur_society_(1891)_(14802896293).jpg

By Internet Archive Book Images [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons from Wikimedia Commons

I deleted my Facebook account some years ago for the sake of health and sanity and use my wife’s account to admire from a distance the harmonious and intelligent discourse among fellow God-imaged humans in this vast social community of reasoned prose, respectful, thoughtful dialog, and deep nuanced understanding of complex issues.

Being a professional mouse-clicker by trade, I ventured into an area of Facebook that I did not know existed.  There is a section specially reserved for messages addressed to my wife from people who are not her friends – as in complete strangers.  

Since my wife is a little less click-oriented than I am, I decided to do her the favor of reviewing these and responding on her behalf.

Here is the first:

Hi,

How are you doing? I hope you are doing great? I want to use this opportunity to let you know that I sincerely appreciate your looks!I believe you don’t mind us knowing each other much better? My Name is Steven,I am from Texas USA.Am a 9 years widower,I live with my pet dogs Wamma and Sandy.I am a Man with sense of humor,I am passionate and romantic,I have the fear of God in me, I have respect for my fellow human being.Till when we get to understand each other more, you will learn everything about me! For me distance does not matter, Am ready to relocate and come for you. Age difference is not a problem, what matters most is the Heart of loving! It will be wonderful of you to send me a feedback if you want us to get along and know each other.I will really appreciate knowing you, there is more we can talk about as we get to know each other.I promise to make you happy and always put a smile on your face.

Thanks and Cheers!

Regards,

Steven.

Since Steven’s profile was removed, I thought I would use my nationally read blog to reply.

Hi Steven!

We are doing great!  I so appreciate you admiring the photographs of my smokin’ hot wife.  Did you know I took some of the pictures and posted them myself?  I’ve been to Texas, yes the one in the USA, a few times but mainly on business.

I’m sorry to hear about your wife but I’m glad you have Wamma and Sandy to listen to your jokes and fulfill your romantic and passionate urges as well as keep you company on your way to church.

You sound like a person who has a heart just bursting with love and respect for others.  Your offer to relocate to our little community just to further our fellowship is quite heartening.  However, it really isn’t necessary.  I bet you can find someone right in your own community that you can strike up a friendship and get to know deeply through meaningful conversation.  Perhaps at your church.  Or, may I suggest that you meet others by taking a class at the community college where they teach English grammar.  

If you do take my suggestion, you should listen very carefully when the teacher talks about punctuation, especially around the differences between a sentence and a question.   You will have to listen very closely to the voice inflection in order to tell the difference.

Anyway there are a lot of other ideas.  Since age difference is not a problem, perhaps you should try bunco night at an assisted living center.  On the other hand, I would shy away from elementary schools. There are laws about that.

Thank you for writing, Steven.  Your letter definitely put a smile on our face. Say hi to Wamma and Sandy.

Thanks and cheers and regards!

David B. Sable

Looking further, I found there was a second message:

Hello Pretty,

How’re you doing out there? i really hope you’re cool, actually I’m a new member of this site and i find your profile quite impressive I’m here to make friends or something more, and i think you’re cool with your profile when i saw you on here, I’m a widowed man with a lonely heart, and you’re probably the first person I’m mailing on this site cos i find your profile quite impressive and interesting. You make a smile out of me if you can find a spare time to mail me back…Best of luck and good wishes

Williams Walter

Again, the profile mysteriously disappeared so I’ll have to use my renown blog in order to reply.

Hi Williams Walter!

We are doing great!  I feel in one short paragraph you have grown immensely as you began hoping that my wife was cool and one sentence later you came to realize that you think my wife is cool.  I can tell you from personal experience, that my smokin’ hot wife is indeed cool!

I am sorry to hear about your wife and your broken heart and am glad you are trying to make friends or something more.  By something more, I assume you mean eating dinner and I can tell you from personal experience that my wife is a great cook!  She was into delicious, whole food nutrient dense cooking long before it became fashionable among the millennials.  

You should find someone you can go to dinner with.  Maybe start with a hobby or community group.  If you take, for example,  a grammar class at the local community college, you may run into someone named Steve, Wamma, and Sandy.

Thank you for probably writing to share how interested and impressed you were with our profile.  I hope my reply brings you a smile though probably not as large as our smile.

Best of luck and good wishes,

Sable B. David

Perhaps I will return to Facebook to read more but right now I think I’ll go have breakfast and conversation with my smokin’ hot wife.

The Demon Sniffer

Wikipedia Commons Artist Unknown

Wikipedia Commons
Artist Unknown

I met the demon sniffer when we went over to the troubled brother’s house to cast out a demon.  I didn’t know that we were going to have an exorcism.

The associated pastor called me up and invited me to a special prayer meeting for the troubled brother  because of some stuff he was going through.  They thought it best not to let the elders in the church know because the elders didn’t think progressively and probably wouldn’t understand.

While waiting on the sidewalk in front of the troubled brother’s house, the brother in the beach pants filled me in.  He had read some books on spiritual warfare along with some really cool novels so he knew a bit about how all this worked.   The demon world was made up of a highly organized hierarchy where there were rulers of regions and rulers of territories and rulers of principalities leading up to Satan who was at the top.   Each country had demons assigned to it and there were highly trained special forces  demons that were in charge of addictions and lusts and other big sins.

I did not know this.

I’ll catch on, said the brother in the beach pants.  He said that it was because of these highly organized demonic forces that he goes out late at night and walks around the church for hours praying.   He said there is a giant dome sealing us off from heaven and only by persistent punching from the underside with prayer is there a chance that there may be a crack, then possibly a hole broken through so that the light of God’s blessing can have a chance to shine through to us.  God depends on us to do this.

I did not know this.

Now the demon sniffer knows his stuff, said the brother in the beach pants.  It’s amazing.  He has this gift where he can go into a house and see if it is clear or not.  We  bring him in for the big jobs.

The brother in the beach pants stopped talking as we saw the headlights of a large car creep slowly up the street.  It meandered and eased towards the curb, a pair of eyes on the driver’s side of the car just reaching over the dash board.

The engine stopped and the door creaked open.  Slowly and carefully, out stepped a short pudgy man with oily hair, polyester pants, and a wrinkled white shirt.  He held on to the steering wheel as he lowered himself to where his feet could touch the ground.  He pushed the door shut with both hands and waddled up into our midst and all eyes turned to him.

“Isth this whewe the spiwituaw wawefawe pwayew meeting ith?” he asked.

It was.  The demon sniffer had arrived.

We made some terse introductions and chit chat but the time of pleasantries and talk quickly ended.  Work was at hand.

“Wet’s go,” said the demon sniffer and we all walked with determination and trepidation towards the house.

I don’t want to judge a man by his appearance but my mind went back to a pudgy young kid in the high school locker room.  The kid who would get flicked with a towel.  The kid who would get ice dumped down his shorts.  The kid who would receive wedgies from laughing football players.  The kid who got carried against his will to the toilet for a periodic swirlie.

But what would it be like if this kid suddenly had power?  Incredible power.  Power over dominions of regions and territories and principalities?  And what if he had special gifts?  Incredible gifts.  Gifts to see into the far reaching world of the unseen.

We reached the house.

“How’s it look?” asked the associate pastor.

“Nothing thewe. Wait, I thee one ovew thewe. Hmmm.  Wook at him go.”

We broke into two groups.  The associate pastor, the brother in the beach pants, and the demon sniffer would be the main confrontation team that would sweep through the house and then pray over the troubled brother.  The rest of us would provide prayer support.

The thinking is that when the church is not praying, the demons in the unseen world are stronger and have mastery over the good angels.  This breaks forth into the seen world when evil seems to be getting the upper hand.  However, when people are praying, the angels get an unprecedented advantage and begin to prevail over the demons.   Prayer, in effect, is like Popeye’s spinach giving the sailor power to deliver Olive Oil from Brutus.

We weren’t sure what to pray but we began taking turn in intercession.  We prayed for the troubled brother, against the forces of darkness, and whatever other needs came to mind.  The other team swept through the house looking for these elusive creatures and prayed against them.

“Got him! He wath a stubbown one!”

We continued to make spinach.  I don’t recall how long this went on but we prayed and prayed amidst the sweeping, the running, and crashing.

“Dewe he is! Dewe he is!  In the name of Jesus, I webuke you!”

Finally the demon sniffer announced that we were done.  We walked silently out of the house.  The demon sniffer climbed into his car, eased away from the curb and drove off into the night.

“See you Sunday,” we all said to the troubled brother.

“Yeah,” he said, “See you Sunday.”

We all got into our cars and left.

Over the months that followed, the demons returned to the troubled brother.  There were more special prayer meetings, more confrontations, and more cleansing of the house.

Then one day the troubled brother’s therapist changed his schizophrenia medication.  And the troubled brother got better.

Fishing Alone

lonely_fishermanWhen Peter got up and told a group of anxious and ego smitten disciples that he was going fishing, he wasn’t just talking about tootling around in the boat.

He was quitting.  He was going back.

The sting of his failure was upon him.  Perhaps all’s well that ends well with the resurrection and all.  Nevertheless, Peter’s promises of loyalty and steadfastness now seem hollow, something that came out of the mouth of a younger, more earnest and idealistic man.

So his proclamation, “I’m going fishing,” is a step back to getting real,  a reality perhaps not far from cynicism on the way to despair.    I feel so much better now that I’ve given up hope, as the joke goes.

The early encounters seem so distant now.  John tells it where Andrew, Peter’s brother, excitedly brought Peter to Jesus with the intoxicating message, “We have found the Messiah!”   Matthew tells a later story where Jesus got into Peter’s boat to preach a beach-side sermon.  The gear was put up after a fruitless night of fishing.

“Throw the nets into the sea,” Jesus commanded.  Undoing the tidying up and putting away, Peter did just that and caught a huge cache so much so that the nets began to break.  For reasons unclear, this hit Peter viscerally.    In a moment of emotional angst, Peter ordered Jesus, “Depart from me!  For I am a sinful man.”

Jesus’ gentle reply won the whole man over, “Do not fear, Peter.  From now on you will be catching men.”  It was at this point that Peter and the disciples left all – the business, the way of life, the old way of thinking – and followed Him.

Afterwords, the years with Jesus flew by.  There was the miracles, the ministry, the confrontations, and the healings.   But this was all under-girded with the trust that they were involved with something greater than themselves.  They were really making a difference.  They were ushering in something that the thirsty and confused world really needed.

But in the end, it all fell apart for Peter and the disciples.  The fight and the resistance to evil was just not there.  The promises had no substance.  The picture of the godly revolutionary he thought he was was without depth or volume.

In short, there is nothing here for Peter.  It’s time to go back to the old life and the old ways.  It is time to say good-by to a three year fantasy.  It is time to go fishing.

They had another night of fruitless fishing.  From the shore, Jesus called, “Children, do you have any fish?”

No.  No fish.

Jesus ordered them to cast the net further out into the sea and this time it was filled to capacity.  Unlike the earlier miracle, the nets did not break.

Peter made the connection.  They all did.  In another visceral upsetting of emotions, Peter wrapped himself in his cloak, cast himself into the sea and rushed back to Jesus.  It was there over breakfast, that Peter’s call was renewed,  perhaps even enlarged.  From being a fisher of men, a rallyier of those to come to Jesus, he was to be a shepherd and caretaker of the sheep.

A late night e-mail from a friend reminded me that Jesus had earlier warned Peter that Satan would sift him like wheat.  And Satan did.  Peter failed spectacularly and in the future, he would fail again, publicly called out by Paul for his part in the Jewish-Gentile racism debacle in Galatia.

It is at these times that we may wonder if there was anything there at all.  When everything we thought we were and everything we thought we had and all the promises we swore to keep had somehow dissipated,  the natural thing is to conclude that there was never anything in the first place.  It was all a dream, perhaps a hoax.  It was the stuff of youthful zeal and it is time to be a grown up and get back to real life.  It is time to go fishing alone.

But Jesus goes on to say to Peter, that after Satan sifts you like wheat, to strengthen your brothers and sisters.   You are to feed the sheep.  You are to care for those around you.  It is time to take the grace you have received and give it away.  It is not time to quit.  It is time to be a shepherd.

In good times, I enjoy listening to teachers and keepers of doctrine and right thinking.  I enjoy zealots of change who want to get out and make a difference.  But in times that I’ve lost my way, have obscured sight of what life is all about, and want to lay on my bed just hoping that time will pass, it is Peter who I need.  Renewal comes somehow from those who have been there – those who have walked through failure and defeat but have discovered, instead of despair, the Lord waiting on the other side making breakfast.  I need to find a shepherd.

The Associate Pastor’s Really Hard Book

Selection_010I once belonged to a men’s accountability group.  This is where a group of men got together to ask each other the really hard questions such as if we read our Bible, if we loved our wives, and how much porn we used that week.

These groups came about as a bit of a knee-jerk reaction to a public relations disaster for the Evangelical church where a prominent preacher spent lots of money that, technically, was not legal on items that, technically, was not the gospel.  About the same time, another prominent preacher got a picture of himself in the newspaper in an intimate relationship with someone who, technically, was not his wife.  Years later, after prison, one of the gentlemen wrote a book entitled I Was Wrong which, technically, was an understatement.

Our group was led by an associate pastor who liked to ask the really hard questions.  He made a career out of it.  No one was really sure what he did of practical benefit program-wise at the church but he would sit for hours with the senior pastor at the coffee shop asking the really hard questions.  His wife said that he wasn’t very good at practical details but was much better at this sort of big picture stuff.  After a couple of years, he left the church that eventually died and disbanded and became a church consultant where he could travel the world meeting with other pastors asking the really hard questions.

We sat in a circle, those of us guys in this accountability group, and asked each other the really hard questions and tried to be vulnerable.  Being vulnerable was really popular back then, too.   In a moment of vulnerability, the associate pastor said, “I really need this!  I mean, I wouldn’t be reading my Bible if I didn’t have a group of men asking me the hard questions.”

Now I am not being judgmental here as I would be the first to admit that habits can be difficult to form and maintain in our busy lives.  Further, there are parts of the Bible that are less interesting and I can be prone to skim read like the rest.  Nevertheless, the statement struck me as a bit off.  I got to wondering how this goes down on that final day when we see the things clearly:

“Oh, Lord Jesus!  I am speechless!  Thank you that it was the Father’s good pleasure to give us the Kingdom.  Thank you for delivering my life from utter wreckage and despair and bringing me into way of light and life!  Thank you for sustaining me, providing my daily bread and seeing me through countless trials and temptations!

“But, dude!  Your book is a total dog!  I mean, who writes this stuff?  If I didn’t have a group of marines staring me down asking me the hard questions, I simply would not have been able to grind through it.  Like hello!  Nails on chalkboard!  Does anyone up here have any writing experience?”

To the Hebrew poet, the words of God are like dessert – sweeter also than honey and the drippings of the honeycomb.  To an early apostle, the Christian longs for the Word as the most basic mother’s milk of nutrition.  I wonder if other bookish religions have the same problem as our group leader.

I thought back to a Bar Mitzvah I attended years ago for a young relative on the Jewish side of my family.  Before the preliminary synagogue service, my uncle was arguing with the usher who wanted my the uncle to wear a proper yarmulke instead of his cowboy hat.  Another relative, took the side of my uncle and told him he should have told the usher to go to hell.  (Do Jews believe in hell?)

Anyway, when I got into the service, wearing a yarmulke and not a cowboy hat, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  They began to read the psalms but the difference was that the Scripture reading was not the rushed preliminary to what the preacher had to say.  Rather the Psalms were the prayers of the people, the fulcrum of identification.

It was not a portion to be analyzed, dissected, defended, and intellectualized.  It was assimilated as  the very words of wandering, struggle, hope and redemption that formed the heart cry of the congregation.  It was the place where they sat.

Later, the decorative scroll containing the first five books of Moses was taken out of its cabinet and reverently paraded  around the synagogue.    These are the very words of God they said.  And the people of the book celebrated, reverenced, and danced.  They kissed the scroll.  They recognized their place as a part of its very narrative.

Over the years, I’ve moved away from seeing the Bible as something trying to identify with me – trying to be cool and hip as it gives me relevant advise that helps me with my money management, self-image, and child training.  It is no longer my tool box where I pull out proof texts to do battle against the atheists,  doubters, and those of dubious theological opinions.  I no longer feel the pressure of a book that has to be gotten through by personal conquest as I watch  myself slipping farther and farther behind in my Bible in a year plan.

The Bible begins to be less burdensome and more attractive as I stop trying to make it identify with me and my world and I identify with it.

I begin my day sitting with my Scripture portion reading slowly and thoughtfully with a cup of coffee and the dog sleeping by my side on the couch.  I identify Israel’s wanderings as my wanderings.  As the blind man’s darkness as my darkness.  As Peter’s failure as my failure.  I am not better-than.  I am those wandering in the desert.

Yet, I am reminded of a God that lifts up the fallen, encourages the fainting, and fulfills the mission that Israel was never able to do on its own strength and merits.  It dissuades my heart from thinking selfishness is freedom and pulls me against my will to love and serve.  It captures my thinking that wants to make idols of my felt needs and desires and points me to the one true God who is all wise and transcendent.  I am not less-than.  I am in Christ who has done all things well on humanity’s behalf to whom God said, “You are my Son in whom I am well pleased.”

Though very little of the Bible is really about me and it was not written to fix my first world problems such as changing the oil or knowing how secular governments should be best ordered.  Yet, I am connected to its story.  At a point in time, God spoke into nothingness, created culture, formed a people,  provided redemption, and will one day establish a kingdom where things will be made right.  I have identification, a little part and space in that grand scenario.

Each morning, I look to that little part and space and take my part in the grand meta-narrative.  My meditations remind me of who I am and where I belong.  It is a cherished part of my day.

 

Moving South

downloadPeople sometimes ask me if it was a big change moving from Southern California to North Carolina.

No it wasn’t.  We just popped over one evening after dinner.

OK, seriously.  It was a big change, but it was a good one.  It was at a time in our life when we were ready for an adventure.  While this may seem strange, I distinctly remember walking to my car on a Southern California afternoon and realizing, “I can live anywhere!  Anywhere!”

There were the small discoveries that I wouldn’t have experienced had we had not moved:

  • Sweet Tea – In California, we apply sugar to our tea manually while in North Carolina, sweet tea is made with a special method making it suitable for glucose tolerance tests.
  • Snow – In California, we went to the snow when we wanted it and then left when we were done.  Here, we watch the weather report to find out when the snow is coming to us.
  • NASCAR – Ironically, this sport has become more popular with  my California relatives than most of my friends in North Carolina.  My relative, the Sports-Guy, records and watches the entire four hours though he admits it is only the last two minutes that really matter.
  • Mountains – The Appalachian Mountains are very beautiful and I can jog the dogs off leash on a wooded trail near my house but in California these hills would be rated as pimples.  On the other hand, they catch fire less frequently.

There are a lot of comparisons and contrasts that can be made – the climate, the accents (you stop hearing them after a while), the diversity (or lack thereof), the nearest Whole Foods, the sports teams you favor, and watching an old time gospel band instead of surf volleyball on the beach.

I used to overthink this a lot.  I would feel sorry for myself because I knew I realistically could never return to my home town – so much has changed.  Further, when I listened to locals talk about their family roots, I realized I really was not from around here.  I wondered if I belonged, where I belonged.

Then God (or maybe a spark of sanity in my brain) metaphorically took me by the collar, gave me a good shaking and said, “You live here!  Get over it.”  And I realized that where I live probably doesn’t matter as much as I was making it.

In many ways, maybe in the ways that really count, living here or there isn’t that different.  If I stayed in California, I would be going to a different church, have different friends, put the portraits on a different wall, and pick up kale from a different farmer’s market.  I would still have to maintain my best shot at a spiritual life, strive for a successful marriage without killing one other, hope I can be a voice of wisdom to the kids in an increasingly uncertain culture, and pay the bills with the money I have.

The reality of moving is that wherever I go, I have to take myself with me.  I still have to learn the same lessons.   I still have to grow up.    But wherever I go, God is still a present help.

So says the Hebrew poet:

Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.

and

The Lord is near to all who call on him,
to all who call on him in truth.

The Worst Sermon Ever

ehudWhen I was in the One True Church, all brothers were expected to be exercised for ministry.  What this meant was that we had to prepare a Bible message for the two weekly meetings that had an open platform – Sunday morning worship and Thursday night prayer meeting.

We weren’t given much direction.  Our leader, Brother Brother-among-brothers would tell us that we had to get on our knees before an open Bible and ask for God to speak to us.  He said that when he was young, he used to be constrained by reading commentaries and by being swayed by systematic theology instead of being taught by God.  This, he thought, led to the pitfall of lifeless ministry where one wears their Bibles on their head.  That’s what worldly denomination churches do, he said – preaching head-knowledge messages without anointing.  That is, of course, when they weren’t preaching psychology instead of the word of God.

But we were much better than that because we got messages from the Lord as we were on our knees before an open Bible like Brother Brother-among-brothers had been doing for thirty years.

There were some unwritten but understood rules on Sunday mornings and Thursday nights.  Younger brothers (which was most of us) would go first.  This way, we could be followed up by an older brother.  The last brother to go was always a leading brother – the ones who led the church.  If Brother Brother-among-brothers was in town, he for sure went last.  Or he just took the whole time.

The goal of giving ministry was to encourage the Saints and not to be talked to by a leading brother after the meeting.  Encouraging the Saints was the easy part because the congregation was conditioned to say amen a lot and they pretty much said amen to anything positive you might say about the Bible and the Christian walk if it was not phenomenally stupid.

The older brothers went later.  If they felt a need to correct, they might do so by saying the opposite of a point you may have made earlier.  Oddly enough, the congregation might have said amen to what you said and then to the correction.  If you were off , you would likely get talked to by a leading brother after the meeting.

This set up afforded me the opportunity to hear lots of different preaching – the good, the bad, and the ugly.  From the deft and inspiring to the unskilled and incoherent, we heard it all.   Some expressed a clear progression of thought that I can go back and reflect upon as when I heard it thirty years ago.  Others would get the plane in the air, lose the flight plan, and never find the runway.  On a couple of rare occasions, Brother Brother-among-brothers would ask the wayward preacher to sit down.

It was worth the risk to get up.  It was heady stuff to be a twenty-one year old having the word of the Lord for a captive, amening audience.

One Sunday morning Brother Younger-younger got up.  He was even younger than me because I had by that time graduated to possibly being the second brother up on occasions but definitely not the third.  He made a tactical error of basing his sermon on the text concerning the stabbing of an extremely overweight king named Eglon.

Apparently, that fat surrounding Eglon’s belly and the corresponding stabbing was a picture of the carnality in our life and God’s attempt to cut through our resistance to penetrate the heart.  Brother Younger-younger was up front making jousting motions saying “God wants to get to your heart!  God wants to get to your heart!”  The congregation wasn’t amening at this point but kind of had their mouth stuck between the a and the men.

But there’s more.

Brother Younger-younger posed a question to the congregation.  What does it mean that when Eglon was stabbed by Ehud’s sword that the dying king’s humongous belly created such a vacuum that it swallowed the sword so that Ehud was unable to dislodge it from his bowels?

No one answered because when someone is preaching, you really don’t answer the question they might post. But we didn’t know.

However, Brother Younger-younger knew.  He turned triumphantly to Psalm 119:11 and read, “Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee.”

You see, the Bible, also known by Christians as the sword of the Spirit, must cut through the fleshly resistance of our carnal nature and be sucked in so as to penetrate into the inner being of our heart so that we may be transformed into godliness.   Presumably this needs to happen before we die in our excrement.

Brother Younger-younger sat down yielding the floor to an older brother.

He got talked to by a leading brother after the meeting.