Thoughts and Meditations from verses and stories through one guy's head and heart... Psalm 124:7
Thursday, December 31, 2009
“And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for Him, to give His people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven…”
When John the Baptist was born, these were some of the first words out of the mouth of his previously mute father. Mary was still pregnant with Jesus when this prophecy was uttered, but He was almost here. Soon would come the trip to Bethlehem for a poor young couple on their own. Soon would come the Braxton Hicks contractions, and then after that, the real thing: labor. Soon would come Baby Jesus. Soon after that would come some scruffy and wide-eyed shepherds to see the baby in the middle of the night. Were they nervous and awkward while holding Him? Probably depends on whether or not they had kids of their own. The seasoned vets probably showed the young guys how it was done; swaying and shushing the tiny boy, praying and saying a blessing with tears in their eyes, as my dad did over my three babies.
Have you ever stopped to think about the fact that Almighty God allowed people to hold Him in their arms? He allowed dirty fingers to touch His perfect hands. In the Garden of Eden, God made clothes for that first fallen couple, but in Bethlehem God let a fallen couple dress Him. The Word of God allowed people to teach Him how to talk. The Creator of rain and crops let people provide his nourishment. God let old men ruffle His hair and old women pinch His cheeks. He let little kids cut Him in line. He allowed Himself to be ignored, talked about and picked last in dodge ball. He permitted people to mistreat, lie about and betray Him. God let people arrest Him for no reason, torture and kill Him and He never said a word to stop any of it.
He could have thundered. He could have exploded in rage and wrath. He could have dealt out justice for every sin. He could have snapped His fingers and this world would be undone… unmade with a word as it was made with a word, but He never did. Zechariah, prophesying after his son’s birth talked of Jesus and how he would deal with sin by forgiving it because of the tender mercy of our God. He came helpless, restrained, permissive and patient. In His mercy, He made a way for forgiveness without opening His mouth.
In Philippians 2, Paul says, “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.” Jesus had every right to respond to sins against Himself with frustration, anger and justice for the sinner, but He didn’t stand on His rights, He stood on mercy. Tender Mercy. We’re supposed to be like Him, which means that we don’t really have the right to any anger, revenge, grudge, bitterness, explosive frustration or even personal justice. We have the right to be tenderly merciful and leave the justice and vengeance to God. In this next year, people are going to drive you crazy and treat you unfairly. They may talk about you or hurt your feelings, but don’t be ruled by your natural response and don’t think only about what’s wrong and right… instead, be like Jesus. Let it all happen. Have mercy.
Yesterday my Great Aunt, Jean Pratt went to be with her Lord. She was 92 years old and I loved her. She was really kind of my grandma, because she’s the lady who raised my mom from a young age on up. See, Mom’s parents had both died by the time she was 10 years old and she was taken in by Uncle Sam and Aunt Jean. Aunt Jean was always the cutest and spunkiest person in the room and she had a great laugh. She was the best cook anyone had ever known and always told the greatest stories about the old days in Nashville when Uncle Sam owned his barber shop…
I am flooded with old memories of Aunt Jean, like the time all the cousins were playing hide and seek in the house and Jodie and I hid in the bathtub behind the shower curtain; but before we were found, Aunt Jean came in to use the bathroom… or the many times we sang old country songs and hymns and Aunt Jean patted her leg and sang along with us. I’ll never forget the smell and taste of her chicken and dumplings or the time she fried a whole chicken and I literally sat at the table and ate until it was completely gone. I’ve spent my whole life keeping snug and warm under her handmade afghans and quilts… once she even made one for our dog…
Every night Christy and I still tuck in under a quilt that Aunt Jean made. It’s my favorite quilt in the whole world and quite as old as I am. It’s huge, soft, warm and mainly red, though many other and variously colored fabrics make up the design. A few weeks ago Christy and I were looking really closely at that quilt and talking about how crazy some of those 1970’s fabrics are. The colors clash like mad and some of the patterns are downright hideous. When you really zoom in on the quilt and focus on the cloth that makes it up, you see just how weird it really is. Then you start to see stains, tears, worn out edges and frayed seams. In fact, up close, the quilt is such a seeming disaster of colorblindness and disrepair that anyone might wonder why it hasn’t been stored away…
Something magical happens though, when you zoom out. When you just look at the whole quilt for what it is, (not looking too long at the way pink-ish patterns clash with orange) it becomes something beautiful. Sure it’s frayed and worn and covered in awful remnants of the 1970’s, but as a quilt, it’s perfect. In Romans 8, Paul said this: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him.” God uses everything in our lives, the sweet stuff, the soft and warm stuff and the broken, awful stuff and he sews it all together for our best. He looks at the whole life as a bigger picture, like the way Aunt Jean sewed all those crazy cloths together to make the perfect quilt. Just like the way God sewed all the happy moments and all the hard moments together in Aunt Jean’s life for her best. Now she’s home with Jesus for her best Christmas ever and she gets to see the finished product of all He did in her life. One day I’ll see her again, and when I do, I’ll see my life, not as a series of things broken or sweet, but as it is, the whole of God’s perfect working.
Merry Christmas Aunt Jean. Can’t wait to see you again!
Aunt Jean with Uncle Sam:
Aunt Jean back in her nursing days with some patients:
To quote my boy Tom, “I don’t know what people do who don’t have the Lord, and I sure am glad I don’t have to know!”
Before I start this story, let me go ahead and say that everyone is okay… no one got hurt, but last week two trees fell on our house. A few good days of constant rain coupled with unusually strong winds got together to create the perfect storm. There is a creek behind our house with quite a few trees growing on its edge and those fierce winds blew the roots of a humongous and ancient oak and cherry tree right out of the rain-soaked ground and over onto our house. The bonus room off the back of the house where we keep the kids toys was crushed. The roof was punctured in many places all over the house, but that one room was smashed to bits. Sheetrock, insulation and boards were broken, bent and splintered all over the floor. A huge branch had sliced right through the roof and was about three feet from the ground.
The amazing thing was, the house was still standing. In fact, other than that play room, the roof and a hole in our living room ceiling, the rest of the house was really okay. We didn’t even lose power or phone service. We had heat and even the Internet! On its way down, the oak tree grabbed the cherry tree with its massive branches and brought it down as well. As the oak fell, one massive branch struck the ground in the backyard first. Amazingly, this one branch acted like a crutch and held the whole tree in check. Everyone; from the construction crew to the tree guys and all the neighbors who came by said the same thing, had it not been for this one branch, the house would have been chopped in two, down to the ground like a hot knife through butter.
I am so thankful for our church. It really is (and acts like) the family of God! I sent a text message to my boy Joe Pendley, who is sort of a wizard with trees. The experts told me you couldn’t get those trees off of the house in less than five days and you definitely couldn’t do it without a crane. Well, Joe brought five guys, a climbing rope and a chainsaw and had everything finished in seven and a half hours! So many friends gave up their whole day just to help us. I was inundated with calls from brothers and sisters offering food, shelter, babysitting and anything else we could possibly need! Oh man, what do people do without the family of God!?
To top it all off, our precious Father had already shown Himself to be so tenderly in control that whole day. You see, when the trees fell, we were there, inside the house. I had been grocery shopping with Norah and Jack, and when we got home I told Norah to go play in the playroom while I changed Jack and put him down for his nap. She told me, “No Dad, I can’t do that.” I asked her why and she said she needed to use the bathroom. Two minutes later the room I had told her to play in was demolished while she was (thankfully) safe in the bathroom on the other end of the house. After the trees fell, I walked into that room with the shattered ceiling and felt sick, thinking about what almost happened. Praise the Lord. He moves (bowels) in mysterious ways. Again, I don’t know what people do who don’t know the Lord, and I’m glad I don’t have to know…
Psalm 91 says, “I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust... He will cover you with His feathers, and under His wings you will find refuge; His faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.”
Well guess what? Somebody stole my identity. That’s what they call it, anyway. No one actually stole my identity… I mean, I’m still me. In reality, certain items in my personal information were compromised, allowing a complete stranger to open up lines of credit using my name and spend money gobs of money without penalty to them while my credit file swirls around the drain. I used to have this lovely, untarnished and impressive credit score and now (on paper) I look like some deadbeat who ought to be breaking rocks in the hot sun. There are debt collectors from all over Tar nation calling my house telling me that my sob story sounds fishy. Frankly, I think these debt collector guys sound fishy! They’re rude, disgruntled and they know way too much about me! All this business has given me a sudden affection for my thumbs and a desire to keep them intact.
The guy that stole my identity probably won’t get caught and is probably enjoying his stolen merchandise right now. My little sister’s boyfriend worked at a humongous bank and said that if they only lose 10 million a year in identity theft cases, they’re doing okay! WHAT!!?? How messed up is this thing? It’s overwhelming and worrisome to have your identity stolen, but more than anything, it’s just tedious. I have spent days and days on hold on the phone, scouring through the novel that is my credit file, searching for anything and everything that some guy somewhere else illegally did in my name. The whole thing just leaves you with so many questions and you’re not sure what to do… Who should I call? What calls should I answer? How much should I tell them? Will this thing eventually be over? Will it go away?
The sweetest Scripture found me in the midst of all this mess last week. I have been reading through the Psalms and as this storm was breaking open I landed on Psalm 62, which says, “My soul finds rest in God alone; my salvation comes from him. He alone is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I will never be shaken... Find rest, O my soul, in God alone; my hope comes from him. He alone is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I will not be shaken. My salvation and my honor depend on God; he is my mighty rock, my refuge. Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge.”
I love this Psalm because it’s like a job description for God. He’s saying that God is my safety, my defender, my protector and my rest. He’s my salvation, which means that He is the way out of messes. He’s the deliverance. He has a master plan, so I don’t have to have the answers, I don’t have to be really clever, I don’t have to be gifted or even wise. I don’t have to be strong because He is my rock. I don’t even have to be responsible… I just get to be His little kid. My honor depends on Him, so I don’t have to prove how awesome I am. My hope comes from Him, which means that He not only knows the future, but sets the future, so I can simply chill, knowing that I’m in good hands. The only thing this Psalm tells me to do is to rest, trust and pour out my soul to God. That’s my plan of action: chill, believe God and tell Him everything I’m feeling. He’ll sort this out… it’s in His job description.
Yesterday I looked in on the weight room at the high school during football workouts. The season only ended a short three weeks ago and already they are back at it… lifting weights and getting in shape. I can still vividly remember doing those same exact exercises with those same exact bars and weights. Sure, it’s been twelve years since I was in the weight room getting in shape for another football season, but power cleans, lunges, and shoulder presses have not changed in the slightest. They still coach the same old technique for the same old lifts that can get a person physically prepared for the unique challenges of football. In fact, whenever I visited practice during the year I watched as new guys went through the same old fundamental drills we did over a decade ago… dip and rip, double team and read drills. Baseball players have batting practice and cross country runners run everyday. If you want to be in condition for those sports, you simply have to do those things; there’s no shortcut and no way around it.
I haven’t been running a lot lately and this past Sunday I played a game called “Crows vs. Cranes” with a bunch of middle schoolers. This game requires a lot of sprinting. You just sprint over and over again, and it’s not that I couldn’t handle the sprinting, because that was fine, but here I am three days later and my legs and back are still sore! Why? Because I’m not in shape! See, when you’re not in shape, you can still run if you absolutely have to, but it’s probably going to mess with the rest of your week, but if you’re in shape, you can run all you need to and you feel fine.
I have been thinking so much lately about the fact that spiritual health is a matter of fitness. Waking with Jesus in a joy-filled and victorious way has a lot to do with whether or not you are in shape spiritually… Look at David. In Psalm 63 he says, “O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water. I have seen you in the sanctuary and beheld your power and your glory. Because your love is better than life, my lips will glorify you. I will praise you as long as I live, and in your name I will lift up my hands. My soul will be satisfied as with the richest of foods; with singing lips my mouth will praise you. On my bed I remember you; I think of you through the watches of the night. Because you are my help, I sing in the shadow of your wings. My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.”
David knew that in order to walk with God, you have to nurture your faith! You have to practice your love for God! You have to work out and condition those beliefs you hold! That’s how you hold onto them. Everyone has doubts from time to time, but what do you do with your doubts? Do you feed them? Do you try to reason with them? Do you nurture them? If so, you may be getting out of shape. I don’t think David allowed his doubts very much breathing room. He didn’t have time to not praise. He said, “I exalt you, I sing to you, I think about you all the time! I cherish you, I long for you and I lift you up!” He’s working out! He’s staying fit, and look what happens… he says, “My soul will be satisfied as with the richest of foods.” Exercise your faith! Get in shape! Life feels better that way.
Chris Rice has this song called “8th Grade” where he says, “Take a little trip with me back to Junior High, set the time machine to 1975…” The rest of the song is a nostalgic backwards glance that is mostly cute and funny where he concludes that everything was easier back then, or maybe, looking back we just think it was easier because at least we know we made it. Now, I love Chris Rice, and I even like this song, but I wouldn’t go back to eighth grade for anything! Are you kidding me?! All the insecurity, the drama, the Spanish homework, the pimples and the silk shirts with stonewashed jeans are enough to make me so glad to be past those days! There were so many awkward relationships and simply everyone was putting on a show in order to find somewhere to fit in… whoa, knowing what I know now, I’d never, ever go back there!
Imagine going back even further! Imagine knowing what you know now about life… about work, technology, relationships and independence and having to go back to early childhood when you had zero freedom and weren’t allowed to make any decisions at all about your own life! Imagine being weak and being totally bossed around. Imagine having to relive babyhood… the terrible food, the inability to employ language or really move on your own! That would be so terrible! I can’t imagine having to learn how read all over again… especially when I’ve read Dickens and Tolkien! I can’t imagine having to learn how to walk all over again, especially when I’ve run at full speed on the kickoff team in high school football, hiked on the snow capped peaks of the Rocky Mountains and stood on the Great Wall of China!
As I write this, tomorrow is Thanksgiving and I am one of those people who can never separate Thanksgiving from Christmas. It’s not that I don’t want to give Thanksgiving its due or anything, it’s just that as I reflect on what I’m most thankful for, my mind is drawn so strongly to the sweet baby in the manger who was Almighty God Himself. Jesus not only created everything and everyone, He watched them all live their lives. He saw all the skinned knees and cruel bullies. He watched the nervous breakdowns and the bitter breakups. He watched kids fall up stairs, wet the bed and fall asleep first at sleepovers. He watched people get toothaches, go bald and get ignored. He watched people get betrayed, arrested, interrogated and tortured. He watched people get crucified; and having seen every single second of every life He made… having known exactly what He was getting Himself into, He still came.
I wouldn’t go back to high school or middle school or childhood for anything in this world! Knowing what I know now, I’d never go through all that stuff on purpose, but He did! Jesus knew exactly what He was walking into and He walked into it on purpose! Why?! Why on earth would anyone in their right mind do that?
Well, it’s simple. He did it for me. He’d do anything for me. Know why? He loves me that much, that’s why. He did it for you too, because He loves you that way. Now there’s something to be thankful for.
Look, it happens to everyone sooner or later. It’s embarrassing, it’s awkward and if you haven’t done it yet, you will at some point. One of these days, you’ll forget to hike up that zipper and someone will bust you. The best you can hope for is that when your time comes, you get it over with among friends. I mean, what if you were some big executive giving a keynote address to a group of would be investors? What if it was your first day as the new White House Press Secretary? Although, I guess that guy has the big presidential podium… I was in a men’s small group one time where the leader had to turn to one of the other guys and say, “Brother, this is an accountability group, right? Well, I feel it’s my responsibility as your brother in Christ to hold you accountable and tell you to XYZ.”
I think the thing that’s so awful about a situation like that is being made suddenly aware of something that everyone else saw about you, which you didn’t. It’s like the Snickers commercial from a few years ago where a bald guy made a toupee out of Snickers candy bars. All of his coworkers gathered around his desk to confront him saying, “Umm.. Steve, we just want to let you know, we know you’re bald.” Steve tried to look surprised, as the girl said, “We think you should stop wearing the Snickers.” Steve managed a weak chuckle and said, “What do you mean?” And the girl said, “It’s not fooling anyone.” The commercial ends with a crying Steve alone in his car removing the Snickers hat from his bald head.
What if there was something glaring and obvious about my life that was out of whack and everyone saw it but me? What if the most significant thing about me was out of place and I didn’t even know it?
In one of the most famous passages in all of Scripture, the Apostle Paul tells us that no matter how mature we think we are, no matter how much ministry we think we’ve got going on, no matter how passionate we are about the Kingdom of God or how much we sacrifice for it, if we don’t love people, we are nothing. In 1 Corinthians 13, he says, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.”
You see, no matter who I think I am, if there is even one person that I hate or can’t stand, I am vastly out of touch with my own struggling spiritual state. Love is the single most important thing, and whether or not I love people is the single most important thing about me. If I hate anyone at all, the rest of my so-called spiritual accomplishments and maturity are immaterial compared to that one fact. If I don’t love, that issue is the single most important thing about me, whether or not I realize it. But if love is my goal, and the law of love my guiding principal, all the rest of it will fall right into place. I don’t want to walk around with some obvious and awkward misstep that I am painfully unaware of! I want to know who I am and where I stand, and the thing I want more and more is simply to grow to be more like Jesus, the Lord of Love.
Jack has been having a rough time lately. And look, I get it. I bet it’s hard to be twelve months old! I bet it’s frustrating to be stuck inside a body that won’t move the way you want it to with fingers hopelessly incapable of fine motor skills and a mouth that simply refuses to say all the words you’re thinking! Imagine giant people carrying you around all over the place, wrapping you up in whatever clothes they want to and then plopping you down on the floor, sticking some toys before your face then walking away… you’d probably go bonkers too! But then, you can’t say, “Hey, giant people! Come back in this room and hand me one of those tiny orange crackers that looks like a fish!” because you can’t talk. On top of all that, you’re painfully making teeth all the time. Wow.
Jack is about the easiest baby ever, but sometimes he’s just frustrated. Sometimes he just cries. On Monday I was hanging out with him and he was having a hard time. I kept telling him that everything was going to be okay and wondering if he had any idea what I was trying to communicate with him. His little brow just furrowed and the tears came running down his smooth little face and into his open, crying mouth. I looked at him in between cries and asked, “What is it, bro? What’s wrong? What do you need me to do?” He didn’t answer because he doesn’t know how to speak English yet, but I wished he could have. My father’s heart would have done just about anything to placate the little guy in those moments if he could have just asked!
Lately I have been watching God answer a lot of prayers and they have been specific answers to specific prayers. For a few years now I have been writing my prayers down in a book simply because it helps me stay focused and I’ve started to realize something cool. As the ink that lines out those prayers leaves my pen and sticks to the page, it often does so in haste or in distress. Often times my prayers are the illegible scratching of a worried or even panicked heart. I leave the indecipherable scrawl on the page along with the weight of the problem and then have the peace to go about my day. Lately though I have seen some of those problems from the page solved before my eyes! I have watched God move and simply answer my prayers just as I wrote them down in desperate hope that morning! I find myself saying things like, “Whoa! That’s exactly what I prayed would happen!” Then I go back to the journal and find that prayer staring me in the face, only it has changed shape now. It’s as if my feverishly scribbled mess transforms over time into a written record of the faithfulness of God.
Our Lord’s brother James said, “You do not have because you do not ask God.” Now, I am not saying that writing down your prayers creates a mathematical correlation or contractual relationship whereby God is bound to do whatever you may fancy. I do not pretend to understand how the sovereign will of God meets up with my anxious prayers. The only thing I do know is that He has done it before… I have watched Him do exactly what I’ve begged Him, in His great mercy, to do. I have watched Him turn my frantic and forlorn hopes into His own shining stat sheet… a testimony of His merciful goodness. We can’t say what He will do and what He will not, but if He doesn’t, let it not be because we didn’t ask.
Wait. It’s not like that… I meant to go. That is, I was only visiting and I got to leave when I wanted to. See, every Tuesday, Tom goes to the Anderson County Detention Center to visit the guys there and lead a Bible Study for whoever wants to come. This ministry started off slowly and has at times been discouraging, but through the Lord’s blessing and Tom’s consistency, it has become something really special. Lately Tom always says, “God is really doing something out there at the jail!” Guys are growing, reaching out to their cellmates (they call ‘em “cellies”) and even singing! Lately they have just had this intense desire to sing praises, and they sing with all of their heart and voice, but they only know a couple of hymns; one of which is, Will the Circle Be Unbroken… whoa. So Tom asked me to go with him, bring a guitar out there and teach those guys some of our really simple worship songs.
I have to admit that I was a bit nervous going in there. You have to pass under a metal detector to sign in. You walk into what they call a “trap” which is basically an enclosed space between two steel doors. One opens, you walk in, and it closes. Then the other opens and you get to walk out. We walked down an eerily quiet and close corridor lined with more steel traps. Finally we made it to Unit 2 and walked into the block. This is a big, open room filled with tables that are bolted to the floor. The perimeter of the block is all cells… more steel doors with one little window in them. As we walked in, the block was totally deserted. Everyone was still in his cell. I nervously looked around at the cell doors surrounding the room and saw surly faces passing by the windows. Then, all of a sudden, one guy looking out of his window saw Tom… His face broke open into the widest smile! He shouted for Tom and then motioned for a cellmate to come look. Another face in the window saw Tom and broke open in palpable joy!
As the guard opened the cell doors for free time on the block, men in orange jump suits came out of doors from all over the place, but 13 of the guys were different than the rest. They carried their Bibles, shouted Tom’s name and rushed down the stairs to see him. They were laughing, hugging and so excited to see their friend… their pastor. We couldn’t even start Bible Study because they were so eager to share miraculous stories of God’s faithfulness to them with Tom. They were literally busting at the seams with the Holy Spirit’s contagious joy! We stood up and sang songs together and it made me cry to hear their worship! They were simply so happy to be praising and to have new songs to sing! They sang their hearts out… I couldn’t hear the guitar or myself singing! After that, they prayed and thanked Jesus for their brothers, thanked Him for their time in jail and thanked Him that He rescued them… wow.
I wish you could meet those guys. I wish you could see their passion for the Lord and how much they love Tom. As we were leaving, I walked back over to the metal detector and the visitor’s log. It was a large, leather bound book held together with duct tape on the spine. It was on page 273 that Tom wrote down our names and the day’s date and time. I remembered Matthew 25 and how our Lord said, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'… 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” Tom has been going to that jail every Tuesday for over two years to serve Jesus and to serve those guys he loves so much. His name is in that visitor’s log over 100 times. It’s not a flashy, trendy or cool way to do ministry, but it’s sweet and real and it’s the kingdom of God being built.
Jack was not a fan of the sand pit... really not a fan.
Okay, before this goes any further, let me just give you fair warning that this will be a bit of a nerdy post, or thought, or whatever these things are that for some reason you read. I’m just letting you know in case you want to go ahead and stop reading due to the impending and excessive dorkiness, which is on its way…
When I was in the sixth grade, Dad bought me a comic book. I was traveling with his football team to a long distance away game and he wanted to get me something to read. It was a “Wolverine” issue with a thick, card stock cover designed to look like a top-secret CIA manila folder. This top-secret folder had three huge gashes in it, which allowed you to look through to the next page and see the contents of said folder. I didn’t know anything about comics or Wolverine or why there were three gashes in the cover of this book. Neither did Dad. He chose ‘Wolverine’ simply because we are both fans of the University of Michigan Wolverines. I opened the book with care and within a few minutes discovered that this Wolverine guy had six retractable, metal claws that came out of his forearms. Wow. I was instantly hooked.
Within a couple of months, I became an expert not only on Wolverine, but just about every major comic book character I could get my hands on. I read about them, I collected their cards, I discussed their powers and exploits with my dorkiest friends and I even drew them during class. Superheroes became something of an obsession for me. To this day I am still fascinated by the fact that throughout history, human beings have created stories about people living among us who are not normal like us… people who are extra normal, different, more powerful. When I was a kid, I truly longed for that radioactive spider to bite me or for a meteor to land on my bedroom. I wasn’t just into this whole super power thing, I wanted to be super powered! I wanted to throw cars, climb walls and wield a light saber!!
As it turns out, there are folks living among us who are not normal. There are people milling about with powers and abilities that not every one has. Not only that, but I’m one of them! This week I’ve been reading 1 Corinthians and in the beginning of this letter Paul rebukes his audience by saying, “Are you not acting like mere men?” He expects them to be something more than mere men! In the beginning of Chapter 4, he says, “So then, men ought to regard us as servants of Christ and those entrusted with the secret things of God.” He goes on to say that, “the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk, but of power.” Folks who know Jesus are the holders of powerful secrets that make us something more than normal! Whoa, this is like real-deal superhero stuff!
The thing is, I can’t fly or dodge bullets. I can’t teleport or swing through the city on my own webs; so what are these secret, extra powers all about? What is it that sets Jesus’ followers apart from mere men? In this same chapter Paul says, “When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly.” Our powers are all about love, patience, endurance and self-control. It may not seem as cool as leaping a building in a single bound, but sometimes it’s just as hard to do, and not very many people can do it. God is making us into something new and powerful… something more than what we were.
Still a little freaked out, but happy right after it was pulled:
And... FALL is HERE!!!
In most cities, if you write checks that you don’t really have the money to write, you just get fined by your bank, which is enough of a deterrent for nearly everyone. Some places of business post those rubber checks, the names and even pictures of folks who overdraw their accounts. In the town where I went to college, it was worse… I remember driving to work one morning and seeing someone walking on the sidewalk around the courthouse wearing one of those gigantic sandwich signs. From really far away I couldn’t read it and assumed it would be one of those nutty “The End is Nigh” people you always see in movies, but it wasn’t. As I drew closer I could read the sign, which said, “My name is Tony Craig and I write bad checks.” (I made up that name by the way) Later that day, as I was driving home from work, I saw the guy still walking around the courthouse with this sign displaying his name and crime for everyone to see! He had been there all day telling thousands of people about his empty bank account. That punishment was old school!
In the town where I now live, there is a labor dispute going on between a business and a group of its workers. For months and months there have been people in a few different locations throughout town sitting in lawn chairs beside a 25 foot-long sign dumping shame on this business. After months of driving by these signs, you get to where you don’t even see them anymore… they’re as much a part of the landscape as the Bradford Pear trees that shade the disgruntled workers. The other day I noticed their sign, though. You see, one of the signs had changed. I drove past and read, “SHAME ON ROBERT MORRIS.” (not his name) It didn’t just cast shame on the business, but on one individual person.
Now, I don’t want to get into this labor dispute. I don’t know the issues or who’s right or wrong. That’s not why I’m writing this. I’m am writing this because when I drove past that sign, it struck me that I would be horrified to find my name on a 25 foot-long ‘shame’ sign in giant capital letters for all to see. I mean, my daughter can sorta read now… what if she saw that sign? The thing that really got me though, was that someone could make that sign… I don’t know what this guy’s sins were, but I know I have sinned. I know that I have done things that deserve public disgrace. If there were a sign for every cruel word I’ve said or every unfair or messed up thought I’ve had, this world would be covered with them! And that could be said for just about any of us. What if my worst sins were broadcast on a billboard for random passers by? What if my crimes became a public spectacle?
Thanks be to God for His grace! Because I’ve believed in Jesus, I am totally forgiven for every wrong word, thought or deed in my past present or future; and even if I did have to circle the courthouse with a sign, I am completely free and forgiven in the only court that really matters. In Colossians 2 Paul says, “When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” Isn’t that awesome!? Because of His grace, I’m not a spectacle and the only thing written over my life is, “Holy.” In the face of Almighty God, I can stand with no shame and no sign.
When I was a junior in high school, our football team was loaded with more talent than some schools see in a quarter century. Everyone knew we were destined to win state, simply because there was no one who could compete with our athletes. Four of the players on that team went on to play Division 1 college football, three of them in the SEC; and at least five other guys on that team played football at smaller colleges. We were a totally dominant team when it came to speed, skill and experience. Everyone expected us to go 15-0 with a perfect record and a state championship ring, but it didn’t happen. Right in the middle of the regular season we lost a nail-biter to a team that didn’t really beat us… it was poor officiating at its worst. This team wasn’t in our region, which means the game didn’t affect our playoff standings, but it was a loss, just the same.
After the game was over, we all just stood around in shock at what had just happened… we had been robbed of a victory we earned and everyone there knew it. Our head coach herded us quickly into the locker room to avoid anyone making a scene when the shock wore off. Ninety guys were huddled in that locker room in palpable silence waiting for our coach to make sense of it for us… I remember him pacing back and forth outside of the door. I could tell he didn’t know what to say. He was grasping for a way to handle this thing when all of a sudden it was handed to him.
A senior linebacker who never, ever played (even when we were destroying the opponent) spoke into the silence. “It’s okay guys, it’s not a region game, so it doesn’t really matter.” It was all the cue Coach Gaddis needed… he burst through the door into the locker room with fire in his eyes and asked, “Who said it!? Huh?! Who said it?!” Everyone on the team pointed at the unfortunate soul who had dared to find a silver lining and Coach Gaddis said, “Get out! Just get out…” He went on to say that he hated to lose more than anything, region game or not… that we had really won and that what had just happened wasn’t right. Look, everyone loves the silver lining, right? I mean, when things go really bad, we all love that person who can help us spin it… who can remind us of the good that’s bound to result, or the blessing in disguise. Of course, if the silver lining turns out to be more tarnish than luster, it doesn’t really help all that much.
On the other hand, what if the silver lining is more than just a lining? What if the blessing in disguise or the resulting good is so good, and so filled with redemptive power that it actually goes back in time and infuses everything with good, so that what we called ‘bad’ we now call wondrous… The other day I was reading Matthew 16 where Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” This was a shock for Jesus’ friends. I mean, they thought following Him was going to be about building the glorious kingdom of God, but Jesus makes it sound like suffering and death. But that’s not all He said. You see, right after that He said, “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.” Then I realized that Jesus never mentions His own impending death without talking about His resurrection. For those who seek to follow Christ, suffering, problems, trials, hardship and even death await, but He says that by laying down your life, you find real life. With Him, death never ends in death, but in resurrection and eternal victory. This isn’t just some silver lining, but the truth that is so deep and good that goes back through time and gives purpose and meaning to all the suffering and pain. He arose from the dead and He promises that no matter how bad or how hard it gets, my story will end (or actually, begin) with my own resurrection and victory!
It had rained for almost a week straight. It was this strong, constant storm that just kept us soaked for days and days. Christy was taking Anna to school one morning and on the way asked her if there was anything she could pray about for her day. Anna said, “Mom, could you just pray that the rain will stop when you drop me off so I won’t get too wet going into school?” Now, as I said, it had rained pretty steadily for about a week, so the chances for a mid-storm shutoff seemed slim, but Christy prayed anyway. “Lord, would you let the rain ease up while Anna’s walking into school so that she doesn’t get too wet?” she prayed as the windshield wipers creaked past. They sat in line at the school for a few minutes and then, right when Christy was about to pull up to the drop off… right before the safety monitor opened the door of the van, the rain let up. It just kinda stopped. Anna got out of the van, said goodbye, and trotted off into her school. The safety monitor closed the door, Christy pulled out and as she was leaving the parking lot, the rain started up again with that same consistent fervor of the past few days.
The thing I love about that story is how little Anna knows about all that went on behind the scenes. For Anna, she asked for prayer, the prayer was uttered, and then the prayer was answered, just like that. She walked into her school as dry as a bone and smiling to boot. What she didn’t realize was the incredible amount of meteorological and logistical planning that it took in order for our smiling Father to orchestrate that seemingly simple moment. Consider how big a seven-day thunderstorm is… how many states did it stretch across? What maneuvers of wind and water took place over the days and days of that storm to bring a break in just the nick of time? What manipulations of barometric pressure were employed to sew seeds in the heart of a young girl about the God who answers prayers? How far had that break in the clouds traveled before its moment in the spotlight, and how many other prayers had He answered with that break before it kept my little girl’s pigtails dry? Was it born in Arkansas? Did it allow a nervous someone to carry a wedding cake to her car unscathed so it could be delivered on time? Did it provide a moment’s peace to a hard conversation in the rain? Who knows…
In Matthew 6 Jesus said, “Your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.” Not only that, He’s already at work behind the scenes to bring about the answer to your every need. You may realize today that you have a need, and without you even knowing it, He’s been working on the answer for six days across three states. Do you ask Him for what you need? Do you take your problems and questions to His doorstep believing that He cares about you and is able to help? Do you run to your heavenly Father with even the small stuff? It’s a big deal to Him, and the prep work involved in answering a seemingly small prayer might just surprise you. Tell God what you need. Ask for His help. Tell Him where you’re hurting and tell Him what you want Him to do for you. The God who made the sun stand still in the sky for a whole day in the Bible also made the rain back down for a six-year-old girl in Tennessee. So go ahead, pray.
We all have certain songs, movies or books, which elicit in us some specific and consistent emotional response each time we return to those familiar melodies, scenes or pages. For instance, the Smashing Pumpkins album, Siamese Dream just gets me fired up. When I hear those songs, I’m ready to sprint or drive fast or just strap on the football pads and hit something! But when I hear the sacred songs of Sandra McCracken, songs like Shelter, Guardian and Jesus the Lord my Savior Is, my heart aches and breaks with the purest devotion and love for the Lord that I can muster. As my little girls say, “It makes me cry happy tears.” Here’s my question for you: Do you ever listen to those songs, watch those movies or read those books on purpose because you want to feel those feelings? Do you ever find yourself using those works as a mode of transport to take you to that certain emotional country that you so love to visit?
This morning I did just that. I opened up the Scriptures to 2 Timothy with a mind to read the whole book. Whenever I approach this letter, I think of an old man who can barely see, writing his final instructions and farewells to his beloved friend while feeling abandoned and alone. It’s a sad little book. In every chapter, Paul names people who should have walked with God and didn’t. Paul knows he is going to die soon. In fact, in chapter 4 he says, “I am already being poured out like a drink offering and the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” He tells Timothy to hurry and get there before winter and to make sure and bring Paul’s cloak and his books. This last letter of the Apostle Paul always stirs in me a potent mixture of sadness, longing and exultant joy. Today I read it on purpose because I wanted to feel something. I wanted to feel those things! And guess what… I did feel them! In fact, I felt them more than ever because I saw something in Paul’s words that I’ve never seen before.
Paul talks a lot about death and life and he talks a lot about people who loved and served the Lord who have already died. The letter begins like this: “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, according to the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus.” Paul says that he serves God as his forefathers did. Then he starts to talk about Timothy’s mother Eunice and grandmother Lois who loved the Lord and have gone on. In the very next paragraph, Paul says that Christ Jesus has “destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” So, why all this talk about folks who have died and gone on to be with the Lord? Why this focus on ‘the promise of life’ and destroying death and the idea of immortality? Was Paul, who knew he was about to die, afraid of dying?
I admit this is speculative, but consider it. What if Paul found himself a bit worried about dying now that he came to it? What if the slightest pang of doubt or fear touched his heart now that he was staring an almost certain execution in the eyes? Maybe he wasn’t afraid at all, but supposing he was, there’s nothing better a fearing person can do than what Paul did here. He preached the truth to himself! In writing this letter to Timothy, he reminded himself that Jesus has promised life! He reminded himself that there was a crown of righteousness in store for him when he saw the Lord! He reminded himself that there were faithful men and women who were already with the Lord and would receive him with love and everlasting joy! He reminded himself that Jesus, by His resurrection from the dead has destroyed death completely! That word ‘destroyed’ really means ‘to take away the power of.’ In other words, there is still death, but it has no power and we don’t need to fear it. Maybe Paul wasn’t afraid, but I’m afraid sometimes… and when you’re afraid, there’s only one thing to do: Get some truth, grab hold of yourself and preach! Tell yourself the cure for your own fears! D. Martyn Lloyd Jones said, “The essence of the matter is to understand that this self of ours, this other man within us, has got to be handled.”