Thursday, December 29, 2016

The scars we bear: Sin, consequences & grace

In Carson McCullers’ classic novel, The Member of the Wedding (Mariner Books; Reprint edition), the main character, Frankie (aka F. Jasmine) who is primed for a change in her life, wonders out loud why she can’t just change her name and be new. Her caretaker, Berenice, responds:
“Because things accumulate around your name,” said Berenice. “You have a name and one thing after another happens to you, and you behave in various ways and do things, so that soon the name begins to have a meaning. Things have accumulated around the name. If it is bad and you have a bad reputation, then you just can’t jump out of your name and escape like that. And if it is good and you have a good reputation, then you should be content and satisfied.”

All have sinned

Everyone has a history marred by sinful actions. Some were things done to us. Many, if not most, were things we did to ourselves. They were results of choices that were often poorly thought out.

There are a million ways to sin. And for each sin there are millions of potential consequences.

These real consequences are the scars we bear that, this side of heaven and unlike guilt, no amount of redemption will completely erase.

The little Pentecostal church I grew up in often had visiting evangelists pass through to conduct “revivals.” A favorite story cropped up in many of their sermons. It was meant as a cautionary tale warning us of the indelible consequences of sin. It went something like this.
There was a little boy who loved to hammer nails into wood. His father’s hobby was woodworking so there were always scraps of lumber. These the little boy was free to hammer in all the nails he wanted.

One day, the little boy was in a hammering mood. He had lots of nails but there were no scraps in his father’s workshop. So, he began driving nails into a large lovely piece of wood. He thought only a few wouldn’t be a big deal.

Caught up in his hammering, he lost track of time until he heard the voice of his father cry out, “Son! What are you doing?”

Startled, the little boy stopped hammering. “Dad! I’m sorry! There were no scraps and I only meant to hammer in a few nails! I can pull these out!” exclaimed the son.

“Okay,” said the father, visibly upset. “You pull the nails out and then come in for supper.”

Supper was very quiet that night. The little boy was afraid to say a word. After supper, his father said, “Come on, son. Let’s go out to the workshop.”

There, they stood looking at the wood. The little boy burst into tears. “I’m sorry father! I didn’t mean to! I pulled all of the nails out! Can you forgive me?”

The father looked lovingly at his son, picked him up in his arms, and spoke softly, “Yes, son, I forgive you. But there’s something you need to understand. Look at the wood.”

They both stared at the wood now filled with holes.

“Son,” said the father. “That was a very expensive piece of wood. I bought it to make your mother a special chest for her birthday. Now, the wood is ruined. Even if I fill them with putty, the holes will still be visible. Just like scars.”

A new name

When we come to Christ, confess our sins, and repent, we are promised a new name in heaven and to be washed white as snow. Both of these are true. As Christians, our names are indelibly written in the Book of Life and God sees us, thanks to the imputed righteousness of Jesus, as clean. Holy without holes!

But here and now, on this earth in this life, it’s not quite the same, as McCullers’ character Frankie was learning. When we’re a stinker, the smell often lingers. Especially when our stinkering involves others who have that annoying habit of remembering. With some, it seems like every time they see us they point, hold their noses, and cry out, “Foul! Foul!”

I know this is true because there are people who have hurt me that only have to come to mind for some reason and my heart cringes. I remember the pain, the betrayal, the lie, or whatever the foul behavior was that caused a rift. Fully forgiving is hard.

I think this is why Jesus counsels us to forgive “seventy times seven.” It’s not that the person isn’t forgiven the first time, but rather that our own hurt needs to be healed and rehealed. Our forgiving them again and again brings healing to our own hurt hearts.

Probably it should also spark in our understanding the truth that others who have been hurt by us go though the same process.

None of us are untouched by the sin of someone else. We have all been both burners and burned, both hammer and nail.

Covering the holes

Sadly, I feel more holey than holy most of the time. I’m sure I’m not alone in this.

The scars -- or holes -- we bear are to serve as reminders, not accusations. It’s not about piling on guilt, on ourselves or anyone else. We must not be about ruining reputations, or getting even, or cowering in shame.

Instead of pointing at each other’s holes, we need to help fill and cover them. Instead of judgment, the borne scars need to draw out from us love, grace, and acceptance.

Toward those who have hurt us, recognizing our own capacity for wounding, we must go easy. Forgive, and when we are unable to forget, extend even more grace. And as we do unto others, we must do to ourselves.

This is not easy. It’s hard. But it’s the love that’s required.

This is not love made of emotion that we grunt and strain out of ourselves. This is true love fired by the Holy Spirit that is reflective of our True Love, Jesus. It’s love that loves even when it doesn’t feel like loving. It’s an expansive and wide love that speaks to the broadness and bigness of our God.

Recovering reputations

None who are repentant should feel the need to change their names to get away from who they’ve been or are. Instead, we must help each other move toward what we each are to become, what we are designed to be. To help the old in all of us become new.

In Frederick Buechner’s novel, Godric (Harper & Row) the main character asks, “What’s friendship, when all’s done, but the giving and taking of wounds?” This brings to mind a well-known verse about how we are often iron sharpening iron (Proverbs 27:17).

Even when our intentions are good, we hurt one another, especially those closest to us. This is the nature of sin in us. It will come out one way or another. We are all well-barbed and susceptible to one another’s barbs.

But the Godric quote can also be taken differently. We can bear the burdens of others by taking on their wounds. By standing with them in their pain and embarrassment of failure or folly, rejection or ridicule -- whatever the misfortune was or is -- and shore them up. Just as we hope others will do with and for us.

Love, not judgment

The scars we bear do not have to be badges of dishonor. If we are children of the Most High God, they should not be. They must not be. Especially when confession, repentance, and renewal are involved.

Likewise, we must not be giving out scarlet letters to all those we know who have sinned and come short of the glory of God just like us. Discernment may be ours, but judgment is not.

When the Holy Spirit opens our eyes to discern the pain in the hearts of another, our only response as Christians is to love, to forgive, to embrace, to stand alongside.

There will be holes. There will be scars. But godly love covers a multitude.



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See Proverbs 10:12, Proverbs 17:9, and 1 Peter 4:8. Do you feel mostly holy or mostly holey? Why? Are there things you’ve done that you regret? How have you dealt with these? Are there times when instead of accusation, others stood with you? When you stood with others? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments.





Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Delay of game?


The end of the year almost always has at least a few frantic believers looking wonderingly, fearfully, or hopefully at the sky.

Why?

Because they have been told that Jesus will return soon.

Significant dates such as a New Year or astronomical events like a full moon tend to bring out the apocalyptic prophet in people. Anticipation is primed.

But in between?

Life as we know it, moving apace, frantic and flailing, eating and drinking, buying and selling. Especially as Christmas approaches and gifts need getting!

Some pray, “There’s a really good sale, Lord, so hopefully you can hold off a couple of weeks.”

Or of it’s not Christmas it’s some other big life event we want to experience before Jesus returns. A wedding, a birth, a special trip.

You know you’ve thought it. “Jesus, come back, but not just yet.”

It’s a faith of pendulum swings and extremes.

Of this frame of mind, Hebrews chides us a little saying, “...so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:28, ESV).

Ouch?

What could possibly be better than life eternal in the presence of our Creator? Think about it. Then, every day, look up with eager expectation and hope that this is the big one.


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Are there times you hoped Jesus would not return? What was happening that you felt was more important? Do you anticipate Jesus’ return daily? Why or why not? Share you thoughts in the comments!

NOTE: For the past several and for the next few weeks, Tuesday’s post will be a brief two-minute devotional. Think, “Tuesday Two-Minute Devotional” or “Two-Minute Tuesdays or something  along those lines. ;-)

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Nix the entertainment. There was no merry at the first Christmas.

Who doesn’t love Christmas? It’s just so holly and jolly! Even Scrooge and the Grinch couldn’t maintain their animosity toward the holiday.

Whether infused with or devoid of spirituality, the season is viewed by all -- or nearly all -- as festive and entertaining.

Yes, entertaining.

We are entertained with TV specials, holiday movies, cheerful music everywhere, season-specific food, colorful and silly clothing -- even store displays are designed to entertain as well as attract our dollars.

What about in church?

More entertainment! From kiddie skits, to organ recitals, to full-blown pageants with live animals, the entertainment factor is high.

We entertain guests and relatives in our homes with lavish food, drink, and elaborate gift-giving.

For weeks, from Thanksgiving to just after the New Year, entertainment is the focus and the goal.

Entertainment, in part, is “something that amuses, pleases, or diverts, especially a performance or show” (American Heritage Dictionary).

In this season we gravitate to what we like, we gorge on what makes us feel good, we are distracted by fantasy away from reality, and we generally put on a happy facade for the holidays.

We manage to muddle through the endless merriment. Our biggest challenges are enduring the crowds in the stores and making it to all the parties. And maybe nursing a hangover or two.

In all of this the whole point of the event being celebrated is totally missed, completely camouflaged and muffled by all the entertainment.

Reality check

On that first Christmas, which actually played out over weeks and months, what was happening was enormous and provocative and not fun.

Jesus (Remember Him?) was injected into human history as a baby -- a tiny containment vessel for an infinite God. It was a hard and messy business, especially for Joseph and Mary.

The event was so significant, so dark-earth-shattering, that angels -- a whole host of angels -- were commissioned to announce it to shepherds, not kings.

Why not kings? Because this was something that was most meaningful to the least of the least, the smelliest of the smelly. And it was all about an unlikely king, by earthly standards.

There was nothing about what unfolded that was particularly entertaining for Mary and Joseph, or anyone else involved. Far from it. If anything, it was often nerve-wracking, frightening, exhausting, emotionally and mentally taxing, dumbfounding.

Good but dangerous

That first Christmas -- and all the events that surrounded it -- was not entertaining. But it was glorious. And dangerous. And treacherous.

The glory, in part, was that this was the culmination of centuries of prophecy. Isaiah declared very specifically that, “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” Immanuel means “God with us.”

You can’t get much more glorious than that. But this was not an easy glory.

The danger was manifold. The reputations of Joseph and Mary were under threat. Her life was at risk since stoning wasn’t out of the question. Then there was the difficult 100 mile or so trip on foot from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Followed by a messy, non-antiseptic birth in a queasy setting.

No Uber, no Motel Six, no brightly lit hospital.

The treachery came with the wisemen being diverted from returning to Herod, the enduring threat of Herod’s sword, the slaughter of toddler boys, and a desperate flight into Egypt. Again on foot and on the sly.

A little like life in Aleppo and other parts of Syria right now.

Starting over & over

Consider that Mary and Joseph had to cobble together from scratch a new life while in Bethlehem, sustaining their fledgling family for at least two years before the wisemen showed up. After having to escape to Egypt, they had to rebuild their lives all over again. There were no housewarming parties for them.

This was not a life where they were served or entertained by angels, but always warned by angels. An angel arriving on the scene probably did not send shivers of joy up and down their spines. More likely their first reaction was to cringe a little. An angel appearing out of nowhere is a little terrifying on its own.

If the first Christmas was reenacted accurately, instead of being wowed, we would experience waves of fear bordering on terror, deep doubt, nauseating uncertainty, threatening conditions, unpleasant odors, and some small awe to be packed away and pondered later.

A party or a pageant is a far cry from the reality that was Christmas.

Arighting Christmas

So how should we view this season?

Perhaps, in between bites of figgy pudding and sips of wassail, instead of seeking entertainment we could seek soberness and a greater sense of solemnity.
  • Instead of being merely amused, take hold of the deep sustaining truths of God’s Word as in Him we live, and move, and have our being.
     
  • Instead of being merely pleased, grasp the deep sense of costly joy that is sparked by Christ breaking the hold of darkness on the world.
     
  • Instead of being diverted, be immersed in the gripping and sustaining reality of the Most High God with us.
     
  • Instead of performing, open up to be transformed as we stand transparent and needy before our Creator, offering ourselves in service and love to a needy and hurting world.

Finding Jesus

“Entertain” also means “to consider; contemplate: entertain an idea, to hold in mind; harbor.” These conjure a mood of quiet, focused meditation. Perhaps pointing us to an attitude of mind more appropriate for the season than one of seeking endless entertainment.

Being merry at Christmas, enjoying the sights and sounds, getting caught up a little in the hustle and bustle is not a sin. But it is important to not miss the heart of Who we are celebrating.

Rather than lose Jesus in the hustle and bustle, the parties and presents, let’s bring Him front and center. Let’s marvel at the mettle of Mary and Joseph and their stubborn faithfulness in the face of crippling hardship. Let’s be humbled to our knees by the perseverance of God to move history in our favor. Let’s tone down the fun just a little and tune up our sense of awe and appreciation more.
“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this” (Isaiah 9:6-7, ESV).



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Christmas a happy time of year or a sad time of year for you? Why or why not? Have you ever stopped to truly consider what the event was really like for May and Joseph? Thinking about it now, how does this impact your feelings toward the season? Please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments!

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

A meditation: He loved them fully


One of the advantages of reading the Bible in different versions is that the familiar is made new. This results in verses you’ve read a “million” times suddenly reaching up off the page and slapping you aware.

I’ve been reading through John in the CEB (Common English Bible) version and hit verse 13:1: “Before the Festival of Passover, Jesus knew that his time had come to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them fully.”

What struck me were the final four words: “he loved them fully.”

A common version of this sentiment that we might hear daily would be, “loved them a lot,” or “loved them loads,” or simply, “loved them very much.”

These all fall flat.

“He loved them fully,” has a certain mellifluousness about it. And I think the word “fully” brings a better image than does a lot or very much. It’s satisfying.

How does one love another fully? There’s a challenge, eh.

If you’re wondering, most other Bible versions render the phrase along the lines of “he loved them to the end.” One adds the footnote “completely or always.” One uses “to the highest degree.” And, of course, the Amplified version goes all out with “He loved them [and continuously loves them with His perfect love] to the end (eternally).”

The original Greek word behind all of this is telos. And as is usually the case, there are a range of related nuanced meanings behind it.

But even parsing out the technical definitions of the word doesn’t always get at its larger meaning. This is where context helps.

You start with the context of the chapter, then widen out to the whole book, then -- in this case -- all of the Gospels, then the New Testament, then the whole Bible. Then, finally, all you know about God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. Then you’ll maybe have a clue.

Yes, Jesus loved his disciples and the others he spent time with before his death “until the end” of that time. Meaning, until he was crucified, rose from the dead, and ascended to heaven. At least I’m assuming that’s what “until the end” may be getting at.

But given that in the context of eternity there is no “end” the phrase feels abrupt, even confusing when mulled.

“Completely” implies love is made up of pieces, like a puzzle, and once assembled that’s it. While I’ll admit there are aspects of love that are puzzling at times, this image also does not feel right. It doesn’t feel like enough nor does it feel very secure.

“Continuously” is good but again falls into a time conundrum just as does “until the end.” The question is “How long is continuously?” And it carries a subtle implication of a starting point that means love was absent before.

I think “he loved them fully” captures it best. It has no beginning or end. It has no specific quantity. You can’t say something like, “I’ll have two cups of ‘fully’ please!”

“Fully” just is. Just as God is “I Am.”

That’s how much Jesus loved his disciples. And how much he loves you and me.

Fully.


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Do you feel loved by God (which includes Jesus and the Holy Spirit)? Why or why not? Does “love them fully” seem a better translation than “loved them to the end”? Why or why not? What are some ways you express your love to another? How do others express love to you? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

Image: Georges Rouault (1871–1958), Christ And The Apostles.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Heady vs. Hearty


In the Dr. Seuss Christmas classic, the grumpy Grinch undergoes a big change.

He hates the Whos in Whoville and all their hullaballoo. Mostly because he’s missing the heart of the event by being head-focused on the factual details and trappings of the Who Christmas.

But as he continues to observe and assess and mull, he witnesses that the trappings don’t make the day. It’s something else.

The Grinch had a tiny little hard heart. By moving past the facts of the situation, he finally gets to the “So what?” and everything changes.

He saw things differently and behaved differently. He looked beyond the information into transformation. His heart grew and grew.

When you read the Bible, if it doesn’t burn or expand your heart, you're not reading it right.

Understanding the historical and linguistic intricacies of the Bible is great but useless if that’s all you’re looking for. It makes Bible reading just that -- reading. And the Bible becomes just another book -- mostly a source of information.

Getting caught up in the dissection of scripture can be a way to avoid letting it reach your heart. Your head fills with information but your heart isn’t touched. Nothing changes.

That’s why we need the “So what?” question.

Asking “So what?” drives us past the information toward the real goal of God’s Word which is transformation. Asking “So what?” moves us past merely dissecting the Word to discerning and digesting the Word.

As believers, we come to God’s Word to learn about Him and therefore become more like Him. This is not accomplished merely through gaining information. What’s discovered has to be applied. It has to be owned. It has to be lived.

Scripture is not just a mystery to be unlocked or a crossword puzzle to be completed.

Don’t forget that there’s a message in the Bible for you, straight from the Holy Spirit. Be open -- vulnerable -- to how this Gospel means for you.

David declared, “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you” (Psalm 119:11, ESV).

Be less “heady” and more “hearty.” Be transformed, not merely informed.


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How do you study the Bible? Do you just read it to gain information? Do you mediate on what you read? Do you ask the Holy Spirit to help you understand and assimilate what you read? Share your thoughts on the topic in the comments!

NOTE: For the past several and for the next few weeks, Tuesday’s post will be a brief two-minute devotional. Think, “Tuesday Two-Minute Devotional” or “Two-Minute Tuesdays or something  along those lines. ;-)

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The suckiness of church, legalism, bad theology & everything God didn’t intend for you

Church sucks.

This is the sentiment many old friends and a few relatives carry regarding their experiences with church.

I grew up in a small town in Indiana – a Hoosier hayseed. The churches were small and, too often, small-minded. It’s just the way it was.

Theology or the big ideas of faith weren’t really the topic of sermons. We usually heard fire and brimstone, something related to how we dressed, the dangers of alcohol, the sinfulness of long hair for boys and short hair for girls – it was legalism on steroids.

There was a lot of “not to,” rarely “why to” (other than “because God said so”), and virtually no “how to” when it came to our faith and the Bible.

Ironically, it wasn’t unusual for us to be introduced to lifestyles and behaviors that we could never have imagined on our own, through the messages and warnings of the itinerant evangelists. The first time I heard about drugs and same-sex intimacy was through a Teen Challenge presentation. Go figure.

It aroused curiosity, but that was wrong, right?

I was also curiously aroused when I went to my friend’s house across the street and we looked through his parents’ deck of nudie playing cards and his brother’s collection of “French” postcards.

The playing cards were a double whammy since they represented the sin of gambling and sexual allure. Double-dipped dissipation.

I felt that there was something wrong with a family having nudie cards, but I wasn’t sure why. I mean, anything connected with gambling – a deck of cards, dice, pool, and the like – were all taboo to me. Throwing in the nudies really sent it all overboard – the proverbial hand-basket and hell scenario. But, again, it also aroused curiosity, among other things.

Yet, my friend was a nice guy and my parents and his parents were friends, sort of.

It was all very confusing.

What simple life?

Church was supposed to provide answers and make life better and easier. Yet what passed as answers weren’t always particularly clear, and growing up, life didn’t necessarily get simpler. And easier? Are you kidding? At least, not while living the way church taught us.

Why not? Mostly because my little church didn’t teach us much of anything about how to live in the real world. What we heard in church was fine for managing life within its walls; once outside, it was every person for himself or herself.

And all those taboos!

Don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t wear racy clothes, don’t go to movies, don’t think bad thoughts, don’t breathe, don’t be who you are!

Once puberty set in, I was a goner. What I didn’t understand was that I wasn’t alone.

I used to think that I was the only one who couldn’t avoid all of the don’ts and that everyone else must have some magical power that allowed them to live “successful Christian lives.”

I was sure that I’d missed something along the way. That I was some sort of unholy freak, beyond the reach of whatever grace really was.

No decoder ring for you!

Seriously. I’ve gone through a good deal of my life feeling like I was left out, kept on the outside, not given the magic keys to the kingdom because I just wasn’t and couldn’t ever be good enough.

For awhile as a child I truly believed I must be the antichrist because I was so “bad” and “evil” inside! Church did not always provide a healthy self-image.

Still, I kept going to church, even after my parents couldn’t make me, and I still do.

Many of my friends and some relatives don’t.

Eventually, within the past 10, 20, 50 years or so, I’ve been able to sort through all the stuff I learned, separating the wheat from the chaff. Most importantly I’ve learned that I wasn’t left out of anything. No one else got any magic keys either. We were all just really good fakers and faked each other out.

Most importantly, I learned there’s plenty of grace available for all.

Moving on but not out

The church as we knew it then failed us, being more about itself than about the Word and discipleship. Sadly, it seems a lot of the same thing still goes on in little hometown churches today.

A lot of my relatives and friends that I grew up with, and a lot of their friends and their friend’s friends, just gave up on church. For a lot of reasons.

Their reasons for giving up are the same ones that more than once almost nudged me out. I don’t know why I never completely gave up on church; I guess God put a certain kind of stubbornness in me that just kept me going back.

While I never gave up on church in general, I have given up on certain churches and even my childhood denomination. I moved away from some churches because the pastors were just too full of themselves to be even half-full of the Holy Spirit. There were some churches I visited where the problems we so glaringly obvious I left and never looked backed.

Finding a good church takes time and effort.

Finally!

Some years ago, I moved into a new church associated with a different denomination where I experienced, for the first time, the reality of ministered grace I’d always heard about in sermons.

The grace was poured on more heavily as I went through an unwanted and unwarranted divorce. In my old denomination, two previous divorces (both of which were not my idea) had made me a marked man and someone to hold to the side. In fact, current and ex- relatives who claim to be Christians still look at me with a measure of disgust for reasons that elude me. This really calls into question the quality of their “spirituality.”

In my new church, I was just a guy who needed God’s love and forgiveness, just as did everyone else there. There was a true sense of “we’re in this together.”

This is the way church is supposed to be. Such churches exist, too. There’s a place for you in one.

God is on your side

Understand that, while you and I are sinners, God still loves you and me and wants to have a relationship with us. He doesn’t want a relationship with a pretender, but with a real, live, created person who is afflicted by sin, struggles with life’s challenges, and doesn’t always do, say, or think the right thing.

God created you. He made you. He knows you. He understands better than anyone else who has ever lived or who will ever live on this planet what makes you tick and tock. He knows your desires, successes, failures, longings, hopes, and dreams. And He has never given up on you, no matter what.

He doesn’t cast you aside if you smoke, drink, cuss, sleep around, take drugs, dress immodestly, cheat on your taxes, don’t go to church on Sunday, or never read the Bible. He’s not necessarily thrilled if these kinds of things are ingrained in your lifestyle, but He’s not walking away from you.

Quite the opposite.

The Hound of Heaven wants you!

God longs, furiously and passionately, to be in relationship with you. He longs to hear you call His name, to turn to Him for help and answers, to seek Him out. He loves you intensely no matter how messy -- or perfect? -- you think your life is. And no matter how messy or perfect you think your life is, you need Him.

My hope is that if you’ve been avoiding God and church that you’ll stop running away from what is really a faulty view of religion and Christianity just long enough for the Truth to get hold of your heart.

If you’re burnt out on God and church, calloused by Christianity and noisy preaching, and disinterested in the Bible and Jesus, I dare you to keep trying anyway.

My prayer is that as you turn your attention ever so briefly and reluctantly to God that His Holy Spirit will find the chink in your protective armor and begin filling your life with a new faith.

Keep checking out churches and giving God a chance to not suck so much.

But be warned. You can turn your back on God, but God will never turn His back on you. He will dog your steps until the day you die, quietly waiting and hoping for you to turn back to Him.

Until death, it’s never too late to say yes to God. There is a place for you in His Kingdom. And one of His churches.



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Did you once attend church but dropped out? Why or why not? What’s your favorite thing about church? What’s your least favorite thing? If you’re not in church now, what would it take to bring you back? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

A musing: Evil, elections, idols & civil disobedience

Among the millions of topics I ponder from one moment to the next is, “Why does evil exist?”

The election of Trump is helping me gain some new insight.

Many Christians view the election of Trump as God’s will. As one who acknowledges that God is sovereign, I believe there is credence behind this idea. In Christ, all things hold together.

But why would the Lord “choose” to place such a corrupt, wicked, despicable person over what many still think of as a “godly” country?

And just because Trump is our incoming President (he’s not in office yet although listening to the news it seems as if he is) are we, as Christians, as Evangelicals, required to accept this reality passively? Do we just roll over, play dead, remain silent, and be dumbly accepting in the face of Trump’s questionable antics?

I think not.

The point of evil, as I’m learning, at least in part, is for us to resist it. God allows certain egregious situations to act as abrasives in our lives so that we can flex our spiritual muscle and fight back. God wants to see how we will handle such challenges. If we will put our spiritual money where our Scripture-spouting mouth is, so to speak.

Within the “God is sovereign” argument there is also Hitler and others like him. Because a despot is allowed to rise up does not mean God has abandoned us or that we must passively accept the rule of evil. Or -- and this is especially true -- that we must vote for him or her.

By the way, I am not comparing Trump to Hitler, so let’s just move on.

Nebuchadnezzar was a ruling authority back in the day. He raised up an image of himself and demanded everyone worship it. It was a tyrannical move. Defying his order meant death by fiery furnace.

Three godly men -- all under his rule and authority -- did defy him.

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego said no. They pointed out that worshiping Nebuchadnezzar’s image was a violation of God’s commandments and so they would not compromise themselves. They “voted” against him fully aware of the consequences.

Nebuchadnezzar remained in power despite this defiance, but he was also affected by what happened to Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego when he had them bound and tossed in the furnace.

They didn’t burn nor did they remain bound. They were joined by a fourth being and walked around inside the fire, praising God. They -- the three men -- walked out unharmed and were not even left with the smell of smoke on them.

Their act of humble resistance -- civil disobedience -- turned into a powerful testimony of faith and an opportunity for the power of the Living God to be demonstrated.

Nebuchadnezzar’s heart was changed as a result. At least for a time. Those under his rule benefited from this change and the glory of God was witnessed throughout the land.

As an aside, if the three had bowed, can you imagine how badly their credibility would have been damaged when claiming they served the Most High God? Let that thought marinate in your Spirit-filled mind awhile.

The point is that just because evil comes into power -- and to some minds, perhaps a lesser of two evils -- doesn’t mean that evil is to be embraced, feted, tolerated, excused, accepted, or given free reign.

And God doesn’t need our help to be sovereign. What he wants from us is holiness and obedience. Endorsing evil fails on both these points.

Yes, Donald Trump takes office on January 20, 2017. Yes, the office of President deserves respect. However, the Office and the person filling the role must also be held accountable. Presidents aren’t kings over the people, they are servants of the people.

Resistance to any evil, especially righteous resistance, is not futile. Positive things can result when evil is refuted and godliness asserted.

I acknowledge Donald Trump as President-elect, but I will not bow down to him. Nor should anyone who views themselves an Evangelical or a Christian.

We serve Another, which trumps all other allegiances. And that’s a fact.



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Are you a Christian who supports Trump? Do you support all he is? All he does? All he says? Why or why not? Have you ever held a negative view of or not supported someone who exhibits the same characteristics, behaviors, and values as does Trump? How do you justify doing so now? What changed? Why is this different? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Leftovers & Round Tuits


As a kid, when something in our house stopped working as it should, became a little worn,  or fell out of fashion, someone always asked, “Do you think the church could use this?”

This is how church closets become cluttered with not-quite-totally-useless stuff. While all things are new at home, the old heads to church.

Malachi 1:14 cautions, “Cursed be the cheat who has a male in his flock, and vows it, and yet sacrifices to the Lord what is blemished. For I am a great King, says the Lord of hosts, and my name will be feared among the nations” (ESV).

When we donate second-hand leftovers to the church and then buy ourselves a new replacement, aren’t we kind of doing the same thing? Sacrificing what’s blemished?

Or, how about when we volunteer to take on a task at church and then do it when we get around to it? Or do it in a rush at the last minute, not giving it close attention? Or even blowing it off altogether, claiming it’s not really as important as other things in our life?

We all have a sort of “buyer’s remorse” after volunteering, wondering why we said yes out loud when we were saying no in our heads. It happens.

But isn’t God supposed to get our first fruits rather than our leftovers?

If Jesus had only half-died on the cross forgiving us for just a few of our sins whenever He got around to it, we’d be in a real mess.

When we commit to do something for the church -- the Body of Christ on this earth -- we need to give it our full and best effort.

“Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men,” (Colossians 3:23, ESV).



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Have you ever promised to do something for church and then failed to follow through? What was your justification?

NOTE: For the past several and for the next few weeks, Tuesday’s post will be a brief two-minute devotional. Think, “Tuesday Two-Minute Devotional” or “Two-Minute Tuesdays” or something  along those lines. ;-)

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Bubble gum, peanut butter, kitschiness & Rod McKuen

REPOST: It’s been almost two years since McKuen died.
Since then his books seem to be turning up more frequently
in the thrift stores I browse. I noticed the same thing with
John Updike’s books after he died in 2009. Weird. Anyway, with
the recent passing of Leonard Cohen, my thoughts went back
to this piece I wrote about McKuen and some musings about
poetry and tastes. It was originally posted on January 30, 2015.
For those who are teachers of English,
heed the advice near the end. Enjoy!

“Rod McKuen, former prolific poet and songwriter of the 60s and 70s, died today. He was 81.”

This was a brief mention on the 11PM local news last night. When I got up today, I was surprised there was zero mention on CNN.com or on the homepages of several other news outlets. It took a Google search to pull up the details.

Seems a little disrespectful, something McKuen was probably used to.

I first encountered the poetry of Rod McKuen when I came across his books in the Hallmark store on Broad Street in New Castle, Indiana in the late 60s. The same place I bought my beloved sandalwood candles.

The books had warm abstract covers and simple titles: Stanyan Street & Other Sorrows, Listen to the Warm, Lonesome Cities, And Autumn Came, In Someone's Shadow, Twelve Years of Christmas.

If you were alive in the late 60s, early 70s, you may remember the song “Jean” sung by the recording artist Oliver. McKuen wrote the song for the 1969 movie “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.”

What? You never heard of the movie, the song, the singer, or McKuen?

Sad. But not unusual.

McKuen was, as my friend and former high school English teacher Steve Dicken so aptly noted, my “gateway” poet. Dicken also referred to him as a “bubble gum” poet.

Someone once told me reading McKuen for them was like getting peanut butter stuck to the roof of their mouth. Peanut butter is tasty but the experience is a tad discomfiting, was the point they were making.

Okay, I get it. Now.

But back then, I was completely enamored of McKuen’s poetry. Unlike so much “better” or “real” poetry, his writing was accessible. That it tapped into the always-in-flux emotions of adolescent romanticism was probably also a factor.

Dicken wisely maneuvered me toward the better poets and craftily whetted my appreciation for finer writing. Dr. Zenas “Big Z” Bicket picked up in college where Dicken left off.

I grew up, my literary sensibilities shifted, and I grew away from McKuen.

But not entirely.

McKuen, by critics and academics, has been pooh-poohed as smarmy, saccharine, schmaltzy, mawkish, and he was even dubbed “King of Kitsch” at one point.

Snark is easy and cheap.

Yet, the man was prolific and successful. In fact I have to wonder if at least some of the harsher criticism was fueled by jealousy.

McKuen published more than 30 books of poetry and song lyrics, plus two non-fiction books. He produced hundreds of albums of music, spoken words, original compositions, and movie soundtracks. He earned two Oscar nominations and one Pulitzer nomination for his music. Frank Sinatra even commissioned him to compose an entire special album of music.

His books and albums sold in the millions.

He did this coming from an abused background, with no formal musical or literary training, producing poetry every day, proud to write what anyone could understand and that millions appreciated.

And you have to respect a guy who, for years after running away from home and an abusive stepfather, supported himself by holding a variety of hard labor kinds of jobs such as ranch hand, railroad worker, lumberjack, rodeo cowboy, and  stuntman, among others, always sending money home to his mom in the process.

Not too shabby for a “bubble gum” poet.

Still, as my literary sensibilities “matured,” his books were slowly culled from my library. Somehow I managed to keep one and recently picked up another in a moment of nostalgia in a thrift store. I also still have two of his old albums, as well as a Jacques Brel album with whom McKuen collaborated.

In recent months I had been wondering what ever happened to McKuen. It turns out he fell into a depression in the 80s and basically stopped giving concerts, more or less withdrawing from public life. And his poetry just wasn’t cool anymore. His final books were published in 2001 and 2004.

But here’s the thing.

If, for some weird reason I was about to be exiled to a desert island and told that the only poetry I could take with me was either the complete works of Rod McKuen or the complete works of, say, John Ashbery, Gertrude Stein, or Charles Bukowski, I’d go with McKuen in a heartbeat.

Why?

Because his writing is accessible, warm, genuine, and unpretentious, like having a good friend to hang out with. Which is the effect you’d want if alone on a desert island.

Of course, if my choices were expanded to include James Dickey, Wendell Berry, Stephen Dunn, or some others, well, my decision would be a little more difficult.

Still, if it weren’t for McKuen piquing my interest in poetry and drawing me in, I might never have discovered the “greater” poets and writers. Or wanted to try my own hand at the writing craft.

So, all you teachers of English out there. When one of your students shows interest in words and shares with you their favorite, but in your opinion “somewhat poor excuse for a writer”, be careful not to speak that thought. Instead, validate their interest, and gently nudge them toward what you believe to be “better” writers.

Besides, if those you believed to be the worst of the worst wrote as well as Rod McKuen did, it would not be a bad thing and all poems would be at least as lovely as a tree, if you catch my drift.

As for me, I’m unashamedly grateful for the gentle influence of Rod McKuen.

Thanks, Rod. I owe you.

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Links to more about Rod McKuen:


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Are there writers or musicians that have influenced you or that you enjoy that others pooh-pooh? Do you snark about the likes and dislikes of others? Why? To feel better about yourself? For shame. Share and sound off in the comments!

“It's Bartok time and this party’s had it.”:


If you’re interested, my most recent book of poetry is “Home Noise: new poems.” Visit www.HomeNoise.us. to learn more.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Promises


I was alone, recently divorced, and separated from my young son. Night after night, in my tiny apartment, I cried and prayed myself to sleep. Much of my prayer was entreating God to watch over my son.

One night, as I lay in bed quietly sobbing and praying, I felt the physical embrace of the Lord’s arms. Then, I heard His voice: “Your son is in my hands.” Still, I cried and prayed. Again, I felt His arms and heard His voice: “Your son is in my hands.” It happened a third time before I fell asleep.

Years later, I attended my son’s high school graduation. I had not seen him since he was small. We spoke and hugged and had our picture taken together after the ceremony. On the ride home, my niece who had accompanied me, asked, “How’d he turn out so well given his circumstances?”

I replied, “God keeps His promises.”

The Psalmist declares, “Then I will praise you with music on the harp, because you are faithful to your promises, O God. I will sing for you with a lyre, O Holy One of Israel” (Psalm 71:22, NLT).

All of God’s promises are trustworthy. Be patient. Be faithful. One day you’ll sing.



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Are there promises you’ve seen fulfilled? Some you’re still waiting on? Some you’ve given up on? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments.

NOTE: For the past and for the next several weeks, Tuesday’s post will be a brief two-minute devotional. Think, “Tuesday Two-Minute Devotional” or “Two-Minute Tuesdays or something  along those lines. ;-)

BTW: Happy birthday, Michael. I miss you.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Home is where the heart is

Being without a home, a place to come back to at the end of a day of labor, a place to hide away from all of life’s threats and challenges, is a hard thing. A scary thing.

When confronted with eviction, even the demons begged not to be made homeless (Matthew 8:31). To them, the entrails of living pigs was a better fate than the wilderness.

In the Old Testament, being homeless was a curse, a punishment. Lamentations 1:7 sorrowfully declares, “During the days of her affliction and homelessness Jerusalem remembers all her precious belongings that were hers in days of old. When her people fell into the adversary’s hand, she had no one to help. The adversaries looked at her, laughing over her downfall” (HCSB).

And yet, Paul and other early messengers of the Gospel were, essentially, homeless, traveling ceaselessly, depending upon the kindnesses of fellow believers, sharing all they knew about Jesus with all they met. It was a hard life (1 Corinthians 4).

And yet, there was joy in the journey. Joy in the message. Joy in the hardship. There was a freedom in earthly homelessness that allowed them to never lose sight of their real home.

Walking the earth as strangers, aliens, (1 Peter 2:11) recognizing that, as believers, our true citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20), allows us to hold lightly to transitory stuff. Even our homes.

Having a place of our own is a good thing, but must not be an obsessive thing. Insisting on being given a new home in Pork Place did not work out well for the demons. We would do well to avoid their error.

Where our heart is, there also is our home. Earth is not it (Hebrews 13:14). Here, we are truly homeless, but always in His care.



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In a sense, Mary and Joseph were homeless for a season. Jesus was not born into a house. yet together, they all made a home. Do you feel at home where you are? Have you ever been homeless or nearly so? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments!