No servant is greater

The room would do, Cephas thought. Four walls and a roof. What more did you need?

It was mostly just a functional space–a place where people gather for a meal, and then return to their homes afterward. In the middle of the room was a long, low table.  There were few decorations of any sort.  Cephas and his friends reclined around the table on cushions, waiting for Jesus to speak as the meal was served. 

He always spoke.

The smell of meat, fish, and bread filled the air, and Cephas began to feel his stomach growl.  He wondered if the others could hear it.  There were small dishes of dates here and there on the table.  Several small platters of soft cheese.  Cephas felt like grabbing handfuls of everything and foregoing the wooden plate in front of him. 

The Lord sat at the table’s center, and after a brief glance at them, He stood and walked to a large, beaten metal bowl that sat by the door next to a small wooden milking stool. On the chair was a folded linen towel. Next to it was a clay jug full of water. Cephas wondered what He was doing.  But then again, He had been known to go off on his own at times.  Maybe He was leaving.

He didn’t leave. 

Jesus removed his outer garments, and wrapped the towel around his waist.  Cephas noticed once again the effect that decades of working with tools, wood, and with his hands have had on His body.  He was slender, but strong, and his hands were large.  They were callused from his work, but they were gentle as he took the clay jug and poured water into the bowl.  He picked up a ladle from the ground next to the bowl, and without another word, he walked over to the man closest to the door, knelt down, and began to wash his feet.

This was the task of a servant, Cephas thought–a lowly servant at that–and he couldn’t believe the Lord was doing what He was doing. 

It wasn’t right.  He felt his temper begin to flare.

And then the Lord knelt at his feet, setting the bowl and ladle down next to him.

“Lord,” Cephas asked him, “are you going to wash my feet?”

Jesus looked up at Cephas, and his eyes were brown, and kind, and full of love.  “You don’t realize now what I’m doing,” he replied. “But later you will understand.”

Cephas began to feel angry again.  Why was He doing this?  And what won’t he understand now?  He understood that Jesus should not be performing the act of the lowliest of servants–he understood that much.

“No!” he said, and it was almost a shout.  “You will never wash my feet!”

Jesus looked at him for a long moment and then answered in a soft voice, “Unless I wash you, you will have no part with me.”

This made no sense.  “Then, Lord,” Cephas said, “not just my feet, but my hands and my head as well.”

Jesus answered, looking into his eyes all the while “A person who has had a bath needs only to wash his feet; his whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.” 

This last statement makes even less sense. Who was the Lord talking about? 

Before he could ask, Cephas felt the hands of the carpenter on his feet, removing his sandals.  Jesus put them aside, then set the bowl beneath Cephas’s feet. He scooped water up with the wooden ladle and slowly poured it over his ankles, then his feet and toes.  He gently rubbed the dirty feet, and then poured more water over them to rinse. His hands were strong, but gentle, and Cephas could see the dirt and dust slipping away, falling back into the water.  Then he slowly dried his feet with the rough towel, and Cephas felt nearly overwhelmed with emotion.  This act, this simple act of a servant humbled him–nearly crushed him–and suddenly his appetite was gone.

Jesus moved on to the next man.  When he was finished washing all their feet, he once again put on his rough clothes and returned to his place at the center of the table.

“Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.”

He stopped for a moment and looked at them all. Then He looked directly at Cephas.

“I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.”

His voice was soft, but Cephas felt as if he could have heard it from outside the Sheep Gate.  He rose a little from his reclined position and looked at his feet.  He thought about what Jesus had done, and bade him to do.

He wondered if he could do it.

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Psalm 139

For the director of music. Of David. A psalm.

 1 O LORD, you have searched me                      
       and you know me.

 2 You know when I sit and when I rise;
       you perceive my thoughts from afar.      

 3 You discern my going out and my lying down;
       you are familiar with all my ways.

 4 Before a word is on my tongue
       you know it completely, O LORD.

 5 You hem me in—behind and before;
       you have laid your hand upon me.

 6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
       too lofty for me to attain.

 7 Where can I go from your Spirit?
       Where can I flee from your presence?

 8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
       if I make my bed in the depths, [a] you are there.

 9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
       if I settle on the far side of the sea,

 10 even there your hand will guide me,
       your right hand will hold me fast.

 11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
       and the light become night around me,”

 12 even the darkness will not be dark to you;
       the night will shine like the day,
       for darkness is as light to you.

 13 For you created my inmost being;
       you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

 14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
       your works are wonderful,
       I know that full well.

 15 My frame was not hidden from you
       when I was made in the secret place.
       When I was woven together in the depths of the earth,

 16 your eyes saw my unformed body.
       All the days ordained for me
       were written in your book
       before one of them came to be.

 17 How precious to [b] me are your thoughts, O God!
       How vast is the sum of them!

 18 Were I to count them,
       they would outnumber the grains of sand.
       When I awake,
       I am still with you.

 19 If only you would slay the wicked, O God!
       Away from me, you bloodthirsty men!

 20 They speak of you with evil intent;
       your adversaries misuse your name.

 21 Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD,
       and abhor those who rise up against you?

 22 I have nothing but hatred for them;
       I count them my enemies.

 23 Search me, O God, and know my heart;
       test me and know my anxious thoughts.

 24 See if there is any offensive way in me,
       and lead me in the way everlasting.

I think I read this psalm 4 or 5 times when I was in Yuma this weekend.  I hadn’t read it in a while, but it just called to me both Saturday night and Sunday morning.  I was thinking about family both times it occurred to me to look it up and read it.  I was thinking that while it may be true that my parents did not plan for my arrival, nor probably look on it with happiness, that did not mean I was not meant to be.

This is something I struggled with a great deal when I was younger, and even somewhat as an adult–that the world was a place I was not supposed to be–something I still need assurance from God about what the truth of that is. 

Am I meant to be?

Do I belong here?

My friends would tell me yes. My sisters would, too.  I mean, I know they love me.  And as far as Jenny goes, I know very well what we mean to each other. 

I know those things now.

And I know the truth of whether or not I belong.

But there was a time when I did not feel that way.  There was a time when I felt without purpose, without ties, without much at all to keep me here other than just stubbornness.

I needed to feel parented, and not just by my sisters–though they were nothing less than extraordinary in that regard, and all three of them had lots of their own stuff going on. 

And they still looked to me, and made sure I had what I needed.

They taught me a lot, but it is still not the same.

I needed to know my value as a son, and not just a brother, or friend, or any other way.

I needed to know my value as a son.

I learned much about that over time.  I learned what my true value was, and began to feel something of what it was to be valued a price above rubies.

I learned that I was loved enough that someone would die for me before I even existed. 

I learned that I was known.

And after years of resting in that love, of beginning to realize that I was not walking alone, I found this…collection of blessings.  I think the first time I ever read it was when I heard someone quote from it during a Healing Prayer session a year or two ago. 

It called to me then, too.  It offers so much assurance, so much comfort.  I think if I had to point to a single bit of scripture that offerred me the most solace in life, it would be this. 

 When I feel lost, or apart from God in some way.  When I feel alone:

7 Where can I go from your Spirit?
       Where can I flee from your presence?

 8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
       if I make my bed in the depths, [a] you are there.

 9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
       if I settle on the far side of the sea,

 10 even there your hand will guide me,
       your right hand will hold me fast.

If I allow myself to become lost in the world,  If I run from Heaven toward darkness, and try to hide myself from God’s face, when I begin to feel safe in the shadows:

 11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
       and the light become night around me,”

 12 even the darkness will not be dark to you;
       the night will shine like the day,
       for darkness is as light to you.

And most of all, when I think about what it was like to feel unwanted, or unplanned, or even unloved, I can turn to this, and know the truth.  Last night was my turn to get prayer in my group, and that issue came up, in the context of a particular instance from my childhood.  This was where God took me, and it made sense then that I had been reading this all weekend.  God had been preparing me:

13 For you created my inmost being;
       you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

 14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
       your works are wonderful,
       I know that full well.

 15 My frame was not hidden from you
       when I was made in the secret place.
       When I was woven together in the depths of the earth,

 16 your eyes saw my unformed body.
       All the days ordained for me
       were written in your book
       before one of them came to be.

I can see why people turn to this scripture when they’re talking about when life begins.  It begins with God.

I feel like that’s when my life really began, and when I think about the moment I felt Jesus for the first time, I can understand something of what it means when people say “born again.”

I had a dream a couple of years ago, after a particularly moving healing prayer session.  I don’t normally remember my dreams, but this one has stayed with me, and I have a feeling it will continue to. 

I was standing on dock, the very one where I had first invited Jesus to speak to me, to take my burdens, and to enter my life.  It was dark, and I could hear music playing.  I could smell meat cooking on a grill.

I could hear laughter.

I was conscious of Jesus standing beside me, even though I could not see Him.  I heard a noise, and when I looked down, I saw the man that had been myself that night kneeling on the rough wood of the dock with his head hanging down.  He was crying, and praying, and crying out to Jesus.

Did I really do this? I asked myself. 

And in the dream, Jesus answered.  “Child, this is when you were born.”

So as much as I’ve tried to hide from God over the years, as much as I’ve attempted to deny the truth of myself, as much as I have questioned my belonging on this earth, even to the extent of wondering if God really hadn’t made some cosmic “whoops” when I came to be, the truth of all those things is this, and I can’t hide from it, or deny it:

All the days ordained for me
       were written in your book
       before one of them came to be.

My life was given me by God, through my parents.  It has meaning.  It has purpose.  It was meant to be.

There is a plan.

Called, part I

“….There’s a war inside of me

between who I want to be

and who I am…”              –Todd Agnew

That’s just the chorus from the song, because it was the part that resonates with me the most.  I was thinking about it last night after I got done talking to Jenny.  Sometimes she really just gets me thinking about things (which is good.  I have been known to think from time to time).  And she humbles me with her faithfulness.

What I was thinking about last night is that I have this really detailed picture of who I want to be in my head.  In the picture, I am so very strong in my faith, and discipleship, and my prayer life is regular, and powerful.  I am a great steward of my finances, and I tithe diligently and faithfully.  I get through my list of prayers daily.  I am a good worker, and will be a good husband, and father.

But that is not always who I am.

The reality is that I am not a tidy package of faith like the person above.  I want to be all those things.

I want to be.

But that is not always who I am.

I am messy, not tidy.  Sometimes my discipleship is weak.  Sometimes–maybe even most times–I am not a good steward of my money, and I do not tithe as I should.  Sometimes I do not pray all the prayers I should, or at all, really.

Sometimes I feel like my faith is not strong enough.

Sometimes I feel like I am not in a state of Grace at all, and I don’t know what to do about it when those feelings come.   

And that is the battle.

How do I become the person I want to be?

Good question.  As far as my discipleship goes, I need to throw myself into the Word, and into God.  I need to chase after Him with all my might

                        “like a deer pants for water…”

I need to truly seek Him, and that’s when I will find Him.  I need to just BE a better steward, and stop talking about it.  I need to give first, and trust God to take care of everything else. I can’t afford to?  I can’t afford NOT to….

I need to set aside more time for prayer.  I need to pray before I do anything else–before I get out of bed, and before I sleep.  If that means I get up at 430 instead of 5, then that is what I will have to do.  I need to trust all of my heart to the Lord, and trust that He will take care of both me and my family.  I need to fight for Him, and fight for them, and the way I do that is to pray.

Pray.

Pray….

That has to come first.  It’s the best way to fight.

And the truth is, Jesus did not call tidy packages of faith to Him.  He called messy people, who were sometimes timid in their faith.  He called fisherman, and tax collectors, and whores.

He called regular people whereever he went, not Pharisees, to walk at his side.

Regular people.

And He’s calling me.  Whether or not I fall into step with Him is entirely up to me.

I am not a tidy package of faithfulness, and I never will be.  I will not always make the best decisions.  I will not always be the best person I can be.  And there will always be struggles.

But still God calls, even with all that.

He calls to me in my messiness, in my inconsistent discipleship, and weak devotional life.

He calls….

Rebuilt

Sometimes I get pretty frustrated with the progress I’m making–or perhaps more accurately, with the slowness of it.  I want to be happy, edified, and healed.  I want to have a good job, a home, and a family. 

I want to be rebuilt.

It’s just taking so darn long.  But I suppose I should not be surprised.  It took a lifetime to make me the person I am today, and while God certainly could change me instantaneously into the person he made me to be, then I would miss a lot.

I would miss the journey.  I would miss learning, and impatient as I am, that is something I very much need to do.  But when I think about where I was, vs where I am today, I can see that God truly has wrought a miracle in my life.

where I was:

20 years, relatively speaking, is not that long of a time.  But 20 years ago, while I was young, I was not strong.  I think that was actually when I really began my downward spiral in earnest.  I would hole up in my small apartment, and I would literally stare at the freaking walls sometimes.  It got to the point where I didn’t want to look at just the navajo white paint anymore, so I covered them with movie posters.  Not for your everyday movies, mind you, but for what I liked to call “splatter” movies.  The gorier the better.

I had posters for zombie movies, slasher movies, vampire movies.  Some were campy looking, but many  featured a strong, supernatural element, and some were downright scary.

It was better than looking at paint.

I hardly ever left my apartment, except to go to work.  I had this one friend at the pizza place where I worked, and he would come over sometimes and we would listen to music, and talk about how much the world sucked.  I think it was Travis that first introduced me to death metal.  Bands like Cannibal Corpse, Obituary, Sepultura, and Napalm Death.

I liked listening to that stuff–it was so ridiculously graphic.  It was like watching one of the movies whose posters covered my walls.

Travis did not do drugs, and neither did I.  Never got into them, never even tried them, actually.  Instead, we would listen to metal, and with some of the CDs, would really get into the stories they depicted.  Sometimes, we would be kicking back listening, maybe having some junk food, and the next thing I knew, hours would go by.

I think that was the closest I ever came to feeling totally lost.

But God reached out to me in that place.  It would be years before I would reach out to Him in return, but he sent people to me that would lift me up, with prayer, and friendship, and love.  One or two people at a time.  Some I got to know very well, and some hardly at all.  But I began to realize I did not have to sit in darkness. 

I began to realize there was light, and people like

Annmarie (the first person to really love me as I was, though just as friend)

Holly (the first person who told me she loved me that I believed)

Teresa (literally dragged me out of my apartment on many occasions)

Johnny (would not take my “no” for an answer. I hope he’s well)

Sherry (talked to me for hours when I was at my worst.  My first real adult friend)

and Mike made me realize over time that there was hope.  It wasn’t all dark, or it didn’t have to be.  It was up to me how much light I let in. 

 Mike in particular made a big impact, and he was really just an acquaintance and coworker more than anything else.  One time he said “thank God” about something.  I remarked that God had not done a hell of a lot for me.

“He’s done more than you realize,” Mike said.  I thought about that for weeks afterward, and while it seemed like a load of crap then, I would still think about his words from time to time after we stopped working together.

More than I realize?  What did he know about anything?  I realized what God had NOT done, certainly.

What didn’t I realize?  You know the funny thing about Mike? 

He was right. 

I wonder what he’s doing now? 

And the first thing that happened was that I got rid of all the posters.  Not because they were affecting me (at least I didn’t think so), but because of how they made me think.  I did not realize how old thinking dark, violent thoughts had gotten.

And the second thing to go was the death metal.  It was not healthy–and even before I had Christ in my life, I was able to realize this.  It was maybe even worse than staring at gory posters all the time.  I had to use my imagination, and I had a lot of imagination.

Light began to creep into my life, little by little, person by person.  It took a long time after that before I found Jesus, but it’s hard to reconcile that person with all the gross posters on his walls, and all the darkness in his heart with the way I feel today.  I really had no idea what a bleak place I was in back then, right out of high school, and into my twenties.  I had no idea how depressed I really was.  I did not realize that what I was really doing was just waiting for the next thing to happen.

Waiting to die.  It was just the next thing.

But Jesus reached down into the dark well of my life and pulled me out of it.  He did it by his might, but also through the Grace and love of people on earth, that were able to show me his love in a practical and real way.  He did it by introducing people into my life that had been where I was.  People I could relate to.

People who could feel my pain.

And that made all the difference.  I hope to do that for someone, someday.

The main thing that’s different now from then is that I have hope running through me, and it seems as if a new blessing is introduced into my life nearly every day.  It’s so strange to have hope when all you grew up with was despair. 

Hope.  4 letters. H-O-P-E.

A small word, but so huge with resonance and meaning.  Because I have God in my life, and Jesus in my heart, I no longer am subject to that despair that once owned me.  I don’t need to withdraw into a dark place when I feel the world weighing on me.  And actually, for the most part, it doesn’t anymore. 

The world, after all, is not what is important.  Like the song says, the things of earth grow strangely dim.

I am being rebuilt, and it is a process.  A lifelong process, from what I’m told, and what I’ve been made to know by God.  And that’s OK.

I have time.

Many things have happened in my life since God entered it–since I asked him to.  I have found wonderful friends, and a great church.  A good job, and a healthy family.  And I have found love, or perhaps more accurately, it found me.

But hope was first. 

I needed to know it was out there.  I needed to know that God was out there, and had plans to prosper me, and not to harm me.  Plans to give me hope, and a future….

2 Corinthians 5:17

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!

I got stuck on this verse.  Well, maybe not stuck, but I could not stop thinking about it. Most days, I don’t feel like a new creation.  Most days I feel all crudded up by life.  By sin.

For me, part of becoming a Christian, maybe even the largest part, was being made aware of my sin.  Prior to that awareness–that awakening, I thought I was golden because I was a pretty good guy.  I was nice to old people and animals.  I didn’t do any drugs, I didn’t fool around.  I hadn’t had the same kind of big, dramatic experiences I heard people talk about over the years, no twelve step programs, no prison, never been to war.  I should be good, shouldn’t I?  Nothing to worry about?

I went for years thinking along those lines….years.

But when I had that experience at the river, when I became aware that I had in fact been (and remained) a sinner, when I asked Jesus to take that burden from me, I was still aware of the person I had been afterward, even though I wasn’t entirely him anymore.

So even though I knew in my head that I was made new, I did not necessarily feel that way.  I still don’t.

But here’s the thing I’ve been trying to think about, and remember.

6You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. 8But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  Romans 5: 6-8

So even before I knew him, even while I was still wallowing in my filth, even while I consoled myself with huge quantities of food, or alcohol, or empty relationships, God loved me just as much in that state of disgrace as he does now in a state of grace.

Before I existed, He died for me.  And whether I like it or not, whether I accept it or not, I am a new creation.

The old has gone, the new has come.

I was listening to this Brennan Manning sermon the other day, and he had a really good point.  He said that until we can accept acceptance, we aren’t really a believer.  I think part of my problem is that very thing: it’s hard for me to be accepted.  I would convince myself that either my friends did not really accept me as I was, or if they did, once they found out the real me, they would bail like everyone else did.

It was much the same with God.  I have always had difficulty accepting His acceptance, and His love.  No, I don’t deserve it. 

The wages of sin is death.

But I have it anyway–I have his acceptance.  And even if I had not ever seen Him as he desires to be seen, and accepted Him as abba, I would still have his love.

8But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

He died for us.

He died for us.

He died for me.

I am not worthy of Him, nor would anything I could do on earth make me worthier.

Yet I am loved, and because of Jesus, have a place in his kingdom.

Imagine that.

Anyway, I plan to work on being a new creation….and trying to see myself the way God sees me.

I think of a pearl, lying in a freshly opened oyster, or whatever mollusk pearls come from.  All crudded up with sediment, and filth, and layers of built up….junk.

Jesus removes the impure jewel from its shell, resplendent in its rough beauty, dripping with water, tendrils of slime leading back to the shell. He holds it in his hand, ignoring the slime, and layer by layer, peels away the filth, grime, and sediment, until the thing in his hand is no longer rough, but shining. 

A pearl of great price.

Why me?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately (I know, I know.  Evidence points to the contrary).  I’ve just been feeling so blessed.  Blessed with a healthy relationship, with a good job, with great friends, an affordable place to live.

Blessed with so much.

And then I was talking with Jenny the other night and the thought popped into my head

                    –what had I done to deserve this?

Why me?

Why should I be blessed, when so many other people–some of whom I even know–are beset on all sides by tragedy, and trials?

I think the answer is that I shouldn’t be blessed.  Probably none of us should.  Because

           “no one is worthy, no not one….”

So why me?

I think I can answer that in a single word:

Compassion.  God has compassion for me.

I used to hear that word and I would think of Sally Struthers, trying to raise money for hungry African children.  I would think of missionaries.  I would think of Mother Theresa, and others like her.  I would think of kindness.  I would think of people in Soup Kitchens and other missions across the country and the world.  I would think of nice people, doing nice things, for good motives.

But I would never really think about what the word meant, really meant.  I never even looked it up, because I thought I knew.  And then I was listening to this Brennan Manning sermon.  And one of the things he brought up was the Greek word for compassion,

                                               Splagchnizomai

It’s not such a kind and gentle translation. 

It is usually translated “to have compassion or pity”, but these are only approximate translations. Splagchnizomai literally means a movement in the bowels (in the sense of the innermost parts). Karl Barth comments, “The term obviously defies adequate translation. What it means is that the suffering and sin and abandonment and peril of these men not merely went to the heart of Jesus but right into His heart, into Himself, so that their whole plight was now His own, and as such He saw and suffered it far more keenly than they did. esplagcnisyh means that

He took their misery upon Himself, taking it away from them and making it His own.(emphasis added)”

Jesus did not just sympathetically identify with the pain of others, he actually, empathetically, experienced their pain and sickness as His own. Their pain became his pain. Jesus did not heal them with an act of almighty power. He healed them by taking their sickness from them and into Himself.”

That, my friends, is compassion. 

And then I think of John 3:16.  “For God so loved the world.”

And then I think of Jesus weeping over Jerusalem, and over us.

And then I think of a exhausted, horribly injured, bleeding, thirsty, and dying man walking up a hill with a large beam of wood across his shoulders because of love.

And then I know why me?

Love.

Love is why me.

Love is why I’m blessed, and why I do my best to be faithful.