22
Feb
18

Spring, Soil, and Seeds

seed2tree2I’m getting the bug.

The spring-cleaning bug, that is.

Partly because there are several places in my home that are really messy and cluttered and in great need of cleaning. [Looking at you, garage!]

But my hygiene zeal also comes from the fact that if I am doing spring-cleaning, it means it is SPRING! And after a winter like this one, spring can’t get here quickly enough.

But this time, when the dust starts flying, I am going to do things a little differently, I’ve decided.

I am going to sweep up all the dust and gather all of the unused, outdated, broken, surplus, and superfluous contents of my house into one place.

Then I am going to get them all out of here… far from my sight.

And exactly 40 days later, I am going to bring them all back in and put them right back where I found them.

“Excuse me?” you say. “You’re going to do WHAT???”

I know. Sounds weird, doesn’t it.

But doesn’t this approach to spring cleaning bear some resemblance to the way Christians approach the season of Lent?

To wit: in the true Lenten spirit of self-examination and repentance, a devout Christian begins this sacred season by identifying something in his or her life that is “out of whack”… or in need of cleaning, if you will.

Maybe that thing is over-eating. Maybe it’s gossiping. Perhaps it is excessive use of social media, smoking, casino gambling, or nose picking.

He or she will then amass all the self-discipline and moral vigor they can muster and vow to “give it up for Lent.”

Those of us “on the fast” then grimace in pain as the dessert cart wheels by our table, hoping someone will ask us, “Aren’t you going to have any?” so that we can steeple our fingers, look heavenward, and say, “No. Sorry. I gave up tiramisu for Lent.”

We can’t wait for Easter Sunday to arrive.

Yes, certainly, because it means we can once again be reminded of and celebrate Christ’s victory over the grave. But MOSTLY because Easter means we can stop tormenting ourselves with all this DENIAL and go back to the gluttony we’ve become accustomed to.

Seems a little ridiculous, doesn’t it?

Because really… if we made the decision that this “something” we gave up is corrosive enough to our souls to do away with for 40 days (not counting Sundays, of course!), why would we want to open the door and bring it back in AT ALL??

OR… is it possible that the “spring cleaning” approach to the Lenten fast is a bit misguided?

IS IT POSSIBLE that we might be called to think of the Lenten fast as less of a short-term, temporary, self-improvement program and perhaps see it more as a time to dig a little deeper… pause a little longer… pray with a little more intentionality… or reflect a little more honestly?

It might just be that the Parable of the Seeds and the Soils (found in the 13th chapter of Matthew) sheds helpful light on a better way to understand the purpose of the Lenten fast. If you remember that parable, you know that handfuls of seed sowed by the same farmer produced vastly different results.

It was the same farmer and the same seed in all five scenarios. The thing that was different – the reason the seed either shriveled and died, or did not sprout at all or sprouted, took root, and produced a MASSIVE crop – was the SOIL.

Maybe the Lenten fast has more to do with properly preparing the soil of our hearts to receive the seeds that the Farmer is getting ready to sow there.

What do you think?

19
Feb
18

U is for Undaunted

(This post is the second in a series. Recently, my mentor/counselor/friend suggested I create an acrostic from the letters of my name as a way of claiming my God-given identity.)

The entire lifetime of Janis Joplin.

The whole of the time encompassing the birth, infancy, toddlerhood, preschool, kindergarten years, elementary school, awkward puberty, high school, initial dabblings in music, endless practice, mastery, brilliance, slogging along, touring, recording, stardom, struggle… the whole ride, all the way up to the tragic and untimely deaths of Janis… or Jimi Hendrix… or Jim Morrison… or Kurt Kobain…

27 years.

Nelson_Mandela-2008Which, as it turns out, is the same amount of time Nelson Mandela spent in jail on Robben Island, and in Pollsmoor and Victor Vester Prisons in South Africa.

Do you remember the moment? Do you remember seeing the live video, via satellite, on the day of his release in 1990?

I do.

I remember the joy exploding from his face… the throngs of adoring South Africans lining the streets, ten deep, calling his name, singing, dancing.

I remember the stoic scowls of the prison officials and guards.

Mandela emerged that day – from Hell – undaunted.

Whole. Unbroken. Unbowed.

27 years??? How is that even possible?

Was Mandela secretly a Marvel superhero… bitten by a radioactive spider… or born on a planet with a red sun in a far-off parallel universe… or charmed by a magic potion?

Or did he just figure out a way to tap into a hidden spring of Something… Something that might live inside every single one of us?

Can I too live undaunted?

Can I tap into the same Source he found?

Or must I first be martyred… unjustly imprisoned… stripped of freedom, dignity, and humanity in order to gain access to the deep wellspring from which Mandela drank?

Or is it mine for the asking?

Can it be found by those seeking release from different prisons; from the prisons of addiction, resentment, fear, or despair?

Is it available to those wounded only by rejection, hostility, loneliness, prejudice, or greed and not by clubs, bullets, and whips?

How deep do my wounds have to be?

How close to death’s doorstep must I crawl in order to taste this True Freedom?

Jesus says, “Yes. You can have it, too… whoever you are.”

Jesus says, “Come to me… for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11:28).

Yes. We too can live undaunted.

16
Feb
18

R is for Redemption

(This post will be the first in a series. Recently, my mentor/counselor/friend suggested I create an acrostic from my name as a way of claiming my God-given identity.)

I love the table in our breakfast room. In fact, it is the table where I now sit and write these words you are reading.

Besides being a great writing surface and just the right size and shape for Sunday dinners with the family, I discovered a whole new trick this table can perform – it can serve as an illustration of a theological principle that resides deep in the core of my identity.

Here’s what I mean: while the legs and frame of this table are new, the tabletop is made out of reclaimed barn wood. Here is a picture of the table… complete with the Table top picinappropriately colored table runner I bought one day from a street vendor in Guatemala.

If you look hard at the surface of this table you can see nail marks, cracks, scratches and a wide range of other kinds of imperfections.

The barn that gave birth to our tabletop (located, we were told, somewhere in central Missouri) had been abandoned long ago. The wood was exposed to the blistering sun, pouring rain, and dramatic temperature swings as the barn just sat there, ignored… unappreciated… unused.

No one knew what its original color was as all of its paint had long since peeled and fallen off.

One day the owners decided it was time to tear that old barn down to make way for something else. Fortunately, a furniture builder came by just then and offered to buy all of the wood planking from the barn.

And VOILA! We have REDEMPTION.

That which had been cast aside and labeled as useless was suddenly given a new purpose. Yes, it did take a little work to transform those weathered planks into a serviceable table, but here they are: living a new life as a vital element of our breakfast room… making vital, daily contributions to our family’s well-being.

Most of the time we see redemption as only about being saved. As Psalm 34:22 saysThe Lord redeems the life of his servants; none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.” Psalm 72:14 makes a similar appeal when it says, “From oppression and violence he redeems their life, and precious is their blood in his sight.”

The barn wood variety of redemption, however, has two components: salvation and rebirth. That barn wood did not simply avoid being turned into kindling. While retaining its essential identity, that wood was transformed into something else completely!

I see Jesus as an agent of “barn wood redemption.” He not only set people free from lives that were seen as discarded, useless, and unproductive. He set them on new paths, gave them new identities, and – most importantly – RECLAIMED their original identities as beloved children of God.

I know that God has begun a huge redemption project in my life. I can’t wait to see where it is headed!

14
Feb
18

“This is not a test…”

hawaii-missile-alertSometimes it takes a nuclear missile attack warning – in this case, fortunately, issued in error.

Sometimes it takes the firm hand and raised voice of a **loving** spouse that keeps you from stepping absentmindedly into traffic.

Sometimes it takes the grave look and furrowed brow of the family physician.

Sometimes it takes nothing more than a kind of “dumb luck” that makes us pause before entering the intersection where a knucklehead just ran a red light.

Sometimes though, on a day like today, it requires a smudge of black ash on the forehead and the solemnly intoned phrase, “Dust to dust,” to remind us of the utter fragility of life.

Every day life is fragile.

Every day life is precious.

Every day you and I are unstoppably mortal… only a breath or two away from eternity.

ash wednesdayBut today – Ash Wednesday – we are invited to celebrate and give thanks – not just for these fragile lives of ours but for the fragility itself.

Praise God from whom all mortality flows!

Praise God all creatures here below.

13
Feb
18

Art and Eternal Life…

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06
Feb
18

Barcode Faith*

Barcode scannerMy friend Mike died yesterday.

Mike had been in the process of dying of cancer for the past six months or so.

I had been to see Mike over the weekend and if not for the full, gray beard and knit stocking cap he still wore, I would not have recognized him. He was a pale, confused shell of the intense, vibrant, lively man I first met more than 20 years ago.

Mike’s wife contacted me yesterday morning and said he had declined rapidly since then. The hospice nurse had given him no more than 24-48 hours.

I was able to get to their home – where hospice had set up a bed for Mike – and pray with them, read some scripture, and anoint his forehead with oil.

Then, at about 9:00 last night, I received the text from Mike’s wife telling me that he had died peacefully earlier that evening. She expressed gratitude for the brief, informal bedside service.

In many ways, it was a similar scene to the one that played out just a few months ago with my son’s high school chum, Brandon. Brandon died in the hospice facility rather than at home, but the journeys of Mike and Brandon through the last stages of their lives on earth were very similar.

From the stunned incredulity of the initial diagnosis to the evangelical frenzy of research into the latest findings about treatments, cures, experiments, and support groups, to the disappointment with treatment results, to declarations of their unyielding commitment to fight on, to unexpected turnarounds, to the final stages of the relentless decline of mind, body, and spirit… Mike and Brandon’s journeys bore eerie similarities.

There was one marked difference, however.

About a month before he died – on the eve of his 40th birthday – Brandon asked me to baptize him.

Throughout most of his life, Brandon had never really professed a religious faith of any kind. He had dabbled here and there with spiritual forms that appealed to his voracious intellect, but always found deep flaws in every one of them, he said, that prevented him from pledging allegiance to any.

But something somewhere changed. Over the course of many meetings and conversations over coffee, Brandon casually asked me one day if I would baptize him… in a church… with friends and family present.

I was delighted by his request and agreed to immediately set something up. But his request was not followed by a secret, personal moment when I gleefully carved a notch in my pastor’s belt. I can honestly say I did nothing overt to steer him in that direction.

And even though I had similar conversations and cups of coffee with Mike as his disease progressed… and even though Mike was also a card-carrying member of the “spiritual, not religious” fraternity, no request for baptism and confession of Jesus as Lord and savior ever came from him.

All of which begs several questions: based on the story of these two journeys, do you believe there is a difference in Mike’s eternity vs. Brandon’s? And if so, what is that difference? And why?

Surprisingly, there is a correct answer to this question; and that answer is: “God and God alone knows.”

As the renowned writer in Christian spiritual formation, Dallas Willard, once famously opined, it is unreasonable to believe that God operates with the faith equivalent of a system of barcodes. What that means is; if you went into a store and pulled a barcode off of a box of Cheerios and slapped it onto a claw hammer, the scanner at the cash register would tell you that the claw hammer was actually a box of Cheerios.

In the same way, it is reasonable to believe that when we show up at the gates of eternity, God probably does more than scan us with his Holy Barcode Reader… using the question, “Did she/he speak the magic phrase before they died?” as his guide.

I am sure the analysis goes deep… even deeper than actually looking to see whether we are, in fact, a hammer or a box of Cheerios.

Believe it or not, God has actually spoken directly to the “barcode faith” question on several different occasions. You can find one quote in the book of Isaiah, in the 55th chapter, ninth verse: “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:9, NRSV).

We see another commentary in the book of I Samuel when the prophet Samuel is preparing to anoint Jesse’s runt-of-the-litter son David as the next king of Israel. Samuel (as prophets often do) speaks God’s mind and says, “… for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” (I Samuel 16:7, NRSV).

Please join me today in praying for the families of Mike and Brandon as they struggle to cope with life without the dearly beloved husbands, sons, fathers, and friends these two men were.

Join me also in making a renewed commitment every day to living a life that would be pleasing to the deep-looking, all-knowing eye of God.

 

* (Today’s post is the story of the deaths of two friends. Out of respect for the families I am not using the real names of the main characters.)

30
Jan
18

The Allure of the Forbidden

Apple and snakeMany years ago, when my youngest son was 16, he came to me with a “plan”.

I put the word “plan” in quotes here because it was really more like an announcement and a challenge, cleverly blended together.

“Hey, dad!” he said, feigning nonchalance. “Guess what? I’m going to get a tattoo.”

I folded down one corner of my newspaper, looked over at him, and said, “OK,” with equal disinterest and insouciance. “That’s cool,” and then immediately returned to whatever article I was pretending to read.

In truth, I was not at all OK with my 16-year-old son getting a tattoo… no matter where he planned to put it. And it’s not that I had anything against tattoos. I still don’t for that matter. I just thought 16 was WAY too young for him to start making permanent marks on his body.

No, I chose to respond with artificial indifference hoping that it would blunt the most appealing parts of his “plan” – the elements of danger, intrigue, and parental disapproval.

As it turned out, the ploy WORKED! That brief chit-chat was both the first and the last time I ever heard the word “tattoo” exit his lips. Still to this day – 22 years later – my son remains inkless.

So why is it, do you suppose, that the forbidden thing exerts such a powerful allure to us? It is a phenomenon that finds its origins in the earliest annals of biblical history. God swept his arm out over the entirety of creation and said, “See all of this? Lots of great fruit and veggies out there. Have at it! Eat anything you want. Anything at all… except for the fruit on THAT tree right over there.”

Naturally, “that tree over there” immediately became the most appealing tree in the entire world.

My wife and I have recently discovered that this attraction to the world outside the boundaries is not limited to humans. Our new puppy Rosie totally turns up her nose at the pile of “legal” chew toys and heads straight for shoes, socks, chair legs, newspapers, and anything else that we try to keep her away from.

Here she is, chewing blissfully on the shower squeegee while ignoring the “bully stick” we purchased from the pet store.Rosie with squeegee

So what is it? Do we have some kind of hardwired distrust of authority? When someone intones, “Do this!” does our DNA automatically signal, “Nope”?

I’m not sure I buy this answer at all. I am enough of a dork that I want to know where the lines are so that I can color inside them. Too long a stretch of driving on a highway without seeing a speed limit sign makes me nervous.

Is it because we are so enamored of our personal freedom that we see any kind of limit as a threat to that freedom? We are, after all, the nation born from a passionate rebellion to limits placed on our national aspirations.

Or… perhaps there is a belief – living deep within our chromosomes – that the verboten thing is somehow superior to the permitted one? I mean, it would have to be, wouldn’t it? Otherwise, why would it be off limits? If everyone had free, unfettered access to the thing it wouldn’t be special, right?

Or maybe we are all just trying to add a little spice to our lives by seasoning it with a dash of risk and adventure… like my son with his tattoo plan. I am sure this was the reason I sneaked those first few cigarettes out of my father’s pack of Newports and shared them with my friends down behind the fairgrounds.

Smoking was rebellious and dangerous, so automatically it was EXCITING.

I’m really not sure what the answer is.

Maybe you have a theory. If so, I’d love to hear it.

I know the impulse to disobey is still something that courses through my bloodstream. DAILY. I am almost always able to rein it in, but it is still there. But honestly, wouldn’t a life of rigid, total observance of every boundary be borderline miserable?

And what does any of this have to do with living faithfully under the reign of God?

The apostle Paul tells us that the call of God-in-Christ is a call, not to misery, but to freedom. He says, “For you were called to freedom, brothers, and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Galatians 5:13-14, NRSV).

Slavery to love = freedom? I’ll buy that, Mr. Paul.

But I’m still puzzled about why my fellow humans and I are drawn so powerfully to forbidden fruit.




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