Posts Tagged ‘judgment


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.)


Blurred vision

dirty_glasses_635_358I had to clean my glasses today.

They had gotten so crusty and grimy they were getting hard to see through.

When I finally took them off and held them up to the light I was shocked. I was amazed to think how long it took me to finally realize my glasses had been accumulating a world-class layer of schmutz.

(LURKING METAPHOR ALERT!) You see, sometimes we don’t notice right away when our vision is becoming obscured. It starts with just one tiny, insignificant splotch followed by another equally tiny splotch a few hours later and so on… tiny splotch by tiny splotch… until suddenly you have no idea if that is a snow plow, city bus, or elephant looming ahead there in the roadway.

You see, sometimes we have to stop and look AT what we have been looking THROUGH.

But we won’t ever clean our own glasses until we first stop and recognize that they are dirty.

Metaphors aside, as you and I go about the business of observing the world around us and commenting on what we see there, we have to regularly dare to be skeptical about the quality and clarity of our own vision.

That’s something I recognize that I really need to do. But to do that effectively, I need YOUR help. You are in the best place to recognize the smudges obscuring my vision.

So please… let me know. Freely. Unabashedly. Firmly, but – if possible – lovingly.

Maybe instead of scrunching up your face and saying, “EWWWW! Your glasses are so GROSS!” you could say, “Hey, Russell… here’s what I see;”


Because who knows… maybe YOUR glasses are dirty, too.




No monsters… no saints

“For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so that no one can boast. For we are his workmanship…”  Ephesians 2:8-10, NRSV

Cars on the highwayWHEW! We made it!

Sometime after 9:00 pm, in the non-Daylight Saving Time pitch-blackness of Saturday night we finally pulled into our driveway and turned off the Prius’ purring engine, thanking her for her faithful service.

Achy muscles uncoiled themselves and stiff joints popped as we disembarked from the 11-hour drive from Houston to Kansas City.

My wife and I then both made a secret pact that we would not do that again anytime soon… that is, at least not until the next auspicious family gathering.

Eleven hours is a LONG time to drive. You need a few diversions along the way – for sanity’s sake. And if you have taken a lengthy trip by car recently, you probably played some of the same road games we did as you drove. There is, for example:

  • … the ever popular, “Find the mutually acceptable and also reasonably audible radio station” game.
  • … or the “Let’s make detailed plans for the next three years of family vacations” conversation.
  • … and who doesn’t love the, “speculate at length about whether this is the same route we took last year or not” diversion?

Yes, these are all a ton of fun. But I have to confess, one of my favorite long-car-trip games is known by the initials: I.P.A.

But instead of standing for India Pale Ale, this IPA means Instant Personality Assessment.

And you know how this one goes because you have played it yourself… on multiple occasions. It goes something like this:

  • “Look at that clown in the silver Camry. Why is he going so slow? Doesn’t he know the speed limit is 75?”
  • “All these Texas drivers in their pick-up trucks… They think they own the road!”
  • “Did you see that guy up there in the red SUV? He must be texting or something. He’s gone onto the shoulder TWICE!”
  • “Whoa… watch out for this lunatic coming up on the left. He’s GOT to be going 85!”

After a while, it becomes abundantly clear that there is only ONE CAR on the entire highway that knows how to follow the basic rules of common sense in driving: YOURS.

Conversely, it is also clear that a dangerous, self-absorbed, psychopathic fiend of some kind pilots every other car on the road.

It sounds funny when you say it out loud, but that description is really not too much of an exaggeration. Most of us, as we drive, tend to ascribe outlandishly vile personality traits to the other drivers on the road… while assigning outlandishly saintly qualities to ourselves.

Of course in our hearts, we know neither of those statements is really accurate. The truth lies somewhere between them.

The drivers of the other cars are NOT actually monsters.

And by the same token, WE are not actually saints as we drive our cars.

Each of us is an imperfect, stressed, hopeful, excited, dismayed, wounded, confused, emotional, beloved child of God… doing everything we can to make it safely from Point “A” to Point “B” in our brand new, beat up, smooth, junky, clean, filthy, pickups, sedans, coupes, clunkers, SUVs and 18-wheelers.

We are each looking for a point of refuge or an anchor in a fast-spinning, ever-changing world.

We imagine we will find it just around that next bend in the road or at the truck stop. Surely it will be there when we get home!

Too rarely do we stop and let this truth from this passage from Ephesians settle down over us and calm our restless hearts; we don’t remember that we are not saved by our superior driving skills, the charity of our fellow motorists, or by our St. Christopher’s medals as we ply the highways.

We are – and have ALWAYS been – saved by grace and grace alone.


Happy motoring!


Judgment Day

Judgment“You’re too…”

Have you ever been on the receiving end of a sentence that began this way?

If so, you know that there are an unlimited number of adjectives that can follow. Almost all of them involve some central element of your identity, measuring it against an understood standard of acceptability.

You might have heard, for example:

“You’re too short.”

“You’re too tall.”

“You’re too fat.”

“You’re too skinny.”

“You’re too weak.”

“You’re too liberal.”

“You’re too conservative.”

“You’re too country.”

“You’re too city,” or many, many other versions of the same idea.

Unfortunately, I doubt there is a single person alive who has not heard at least one “You’re too…” in their lives. The world seems to be well stocked with folks who are willing to judge and assess others.

And even though these one-liners usually maim and wound, I have received a few that I have considered helpful. In a quiet restaurant for dinner, hearing my wife say, “Honey, you’re too loud,” is of benefit to me and the other diners. “You’re too hard on him,” is useful feedback when I am being overly critical of one of my children.

But helpfulness is not usually the outcome. Most of the time, “You’re too…” comes off as an attack on a fundamental component of the divine wiring of one of God’s beloved creatures.

When you hand out one of these “scorecards” to someone, you might think you’re being helpful – like that time you told the girl she was too short to be a dancer or told me I am too goofy and irreverent to be a pastor – but it is more likely the case that your “open, honest” assessment serves only to bolster your own (perhaps) sagging ego while tearing others’ down.

But here is the question I really want to ask on this whole topic: given the fact that each of us has been stung by one of these “You’re too…”s at some point in our lives, how do we deal with them?

My personal tendency is to give them too much credence. My Myers-Briggs ENFJ personality type (Extroverted-INtuiting-Feeling-Judging) leads me to place a HIGH value on the opinions of others. I know I have blind spots concerning my own behavior and feel like I want to stay open to points of view that might be more objective than mine.

In practice, I have a really hard time hearing a “You’re too…” and blowing it off.

You might be like that, too. Or you might be exactly the opposite. You might be like our current president, for example. You might treat every word of criticism as “fake news”… not worth the air it takes to speak it.

Somewhere between those two extremes – I believe – lives a healthy “middle place.” It is a place that doesn’t brush off every critical comment as useless and irrelevant, but at the same time, is not crushed by them.

I believe there is such a place. And I further believe we arrive at that healthier place when we realize the true source of our worth. You see, when we lean toward believing that our worth comes from living up to the expectations of other people, we tend to give those opinions too much weight. We empower THEM to define US.

Conversely, when we see our intrinsic worth as completely self-generated, we seek no higher authority than that one that stares back at us from the mirror. We’re like, “Hey… whatever he says, goes.”

Grasping our worth as something bestowed upon us by a wise and loving Creator helps us keep the slings and arrows of criticism in their proper place. It helps us consider the value of each criticism… helps us graciously receive the stuff that applies, dismiss the stuff that doesn’t, and altogether avoid the temptation to “kill the messenger.”

The psalmist reminds us of the enormity of the miracle of human existence when he says this about people:

“Yet you have made them a little lower than God,

    and crowned them with glory and honor.

You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;

    you have put all things under their feet,

all sheep and oxen,

    and also the beasts of the field,

the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,

    whatever passes along the paths of the seas.                        Psalm 8:5-8, NRSV

Wow! Really? Can that be ME he is talking about?

Yes… yes, it is. And you know what else is cool? He is also talking about YOU!


Abundant blessings;

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