Nativity

I was in the Christmas pageant one year back in high school. It was quite a spectacle, with all the Holiday bells and whistles you might expect. We had Christmas carols, wassailing, yule logs, and even a drunken lord of somewhere at a banquet, played by yours truly. Here’s my one line:

“A toast, a toast.”

We had a “living” Nativity, too, but done tableau-style. The actors playing the wise men, Mary, and Joseph had to stand perfectly still and gaze down in love and awe at the manger in the scene, which I remember as a rough cradle of light-colored wood. A blanket lined the cradle, and straw lined the blanket.

It became a game to put different things in the manger during practices, with the object being to cause Mary or Joseph to break character and laugh. I don’t think it happened until one of the final performances.

We put a fish in it.

That memory popped into my head the other day, while I was thinking about writing this. At the time, it seemed like big-time funny. And it was, it really was.

Because I didn’t get it.

I think for many of us, the Nativity is little more than a symbol–part of a set of symbols–that we place under a tree, or in a window sill. An aesthetically pleasing reminder of the holiday, and a token nod to what it’s actually about. So it’s OK to do things like try and make people laugh, even at the cost of obscuring what actually did occur on a night a little more than two thousand years ago.

Even Christians do this–I know I have. Jenny and I even talked about getting a Nativity the other day–and I thought “that’ll look great in the window, or under the tree.”

But then something clicked in my head, and it isn’t something I’ve really given much thought to, other than hearing my old pastor in San Diego speak on it once. I don’t remember his exact words, but his point has stayed in my head ever since, milling around near the back of my giant skull, only coming out once in a while, when I’m not paying attention.

I was thinking about what the Nativity actually represents, at least to me.

Yes, it’s a beautiful depiction of some of the events following the birth of Jesus, and those participating in them.

But it’s more than that.

The world was, and remains, a fallen place. A place peopled by those desperately in need of rescue. Not just rescue from the fallen world they lived in, but also rescue from themselves, and their recurring tendency to fall into sin. And God looked at this world filled with people that He made, and loved, and He did the only thing He could do to save it when He saw it about to be overran.

He sent His Son.

That’s the world that Jesus entered. It was a world at war in almost every sense of the word. There was actual war with Rome, and several other countries. The denizens of Jerusalem and its outlying regions also warred against each other. And I think most significantly, the people warred against themselves, and their own inherant tendency to sin.

This is the hardest war to fight, because on our own we can achieve no victory. It was the same for people during the time of Jesus.

They needed someone to save them, and also to teach them how to fight against an unbeatable foe. We need those same things today.

And I think the Nativity represents not just the world-shattering birth of Jesus the Christ, but also the greatest and most daring act of war the world has ever seen, performed in a battle to the death against an enemy without peer.

It also represents an invasion.

Eyes to See

I think I knew I needed glasses for a while before I actually got them.

I would sit on the couch and have to squint at the Tivo menu to read what programs were recorded. Another time, I had picked some friends off at the airport and after I dropped them off, I realized I could not read the small green street signs to navigate my way out of their neighborhood. I think it took me about 90 minutes to get home, and it probably should have been 15 to 20. I finally found my way to I-5, and ended up getting back on down by the airport–after I drove through Barrio Logan with the doors locked.

The point being, I could not see for beans, and I knew it. Yet I resisted getting glasses because I’d had perfect vision my entire life, and it was not possible I no longer did.

Besides, glasses were for old people.

And then I realized, I am old people.

So I went to see an eye doctor my friend recommended, and after I got my glasses, I could not believe how much easier things got. I could read the titles from the Tivo menu from across the street–never mind across the living room. I won’t even mention how awesome it was to see street signs without stopping and squinting. Not that it helped me much with getting lost–anyone who knows me can attest to that.

But the short version is that once I finally broke down and sought help, I could see again.

I could see.

I think that’s what it’s like when we finally let down our guards, and let go of our inhibitions and preconceived notions about God and just ask him for eyes to see.

I can remember when I finally did that. It had just gotten so frustrating to always have to see things in black and white—based on a set of values that I had accrued over a life jam packed with all kinds of nonsense. Most of it created by the lies I allowed myself to believe about God, and about myself, and about the people I was continually made to interact with.

Black and white.

You’d think it would be easier to see things that way–in convenient terms that I understood the definitions for. And in some respects, regarding some things, it is easier. Evil is still evil, and always will be. God is still good, all the time, and always will be.

I think it’s in the act of looking around at everything else that we become blind. We become too concerned with labels, and less with the people we’re attempting to fit into our little one-or-two-word definitions. And if they do not fit into the little boxes we’ve created, like

Christian
Liberal
Conservative
Good
Evil

then we close our minds to them, and they are simply wrong.

And to me, one of the worst things about it is that we deem ourselves worthy enough to judge the worthiness of others in regard to anything.

That is not–and never has been–ours to do.

God judges. And no one is worthy.

All have fallen short of the only judge that matters (Romans 3:10 and 3:23).

Who am I to judge anyone else’s commitment to Jesus? Who am I to hold it up to mine, and find it lacking?

What makes me think I can judge anyone else’s patriotism, or commitment to their family, or that my methods for disciplining my children are better than theirs? I heard someone say on the radio not long ago that where we see people as obstacles, Jesus saw them as opportunities for ministry. Man, do I wish I was like that.

The plain truth is that the world and the things in it are bright, so bright, and they fall over our eyes and cloud our perspectives until we ask and ask and ask God to take them away.

So we can have eyes to see—to see each other the way He intended us to. To look at His people–even if they don’t believe—and realize he died for them just as much as for we who now believe.

Maybe even more.

Because He came not for the well, but the sick.

He came to give His life as a ransom for many.

He came to give us eyes to see.

*****

Two days before I left Panama, we were all in the van driving to work. I was listening to my mp3 player, as I usually did. It was great because we would inevitably get stuck at the canal for almost an hour, and also because it drowned out my annoying coworkers–and believe me, they would annoy Mother Theresa. And like usually happens, God knew better than me what I needed. After the first week, it became part of my devotional time–I would just put on my worship playlist and go.

On this particular morning, the first song that came on when we stopped at the canal was this TobyMac song called “The Slam,” which is one I usually skip over. Never really thought much about listening to it–I didn’t care for his intro. This time, I stopped and listened to the words and this particular verse about John the Baptizer kept repeating in my head.

They came from the cities and towns all around
To see the longhaired preacher from the desert get down
Waist high in water, never short on words, he said
Repent, the kingdom of heaven can be yours
But he stopped in the middle of his words and dropped
Down to his knees and said, behold the Lamb of God
He’s the one, the slam, don’t you people understand?
You’re staring at the son, God’s reaching out his hand

John the Baptist was really an amazing person. To start with, he fearlessly proclaimed the word of God, regardless of potential consequence. And he also foretold of the coming messiah, the thongs of whose sandals he was not worthy to untie.

And what I was thinking about was that not only did John recognize that a messiah was coming and the kingdom of Heaven was near, he recognized Jesus when He came. Not everyone did. Think about it. When Jesus came to the Jordan to be baptized by John, he probably had to walk through a crowd of people that had come to hear John. And there were Pharisees among them. But Jesus ventured through the throng, and was baptized by an obedient John.

Behold the Lamb of God.

I wonder, how many of us would recognize Jesus if He came in such a way today?

Think about it, just for a minute. What if you were at church? What if your pastor was right in the middle of a sermon, and then dropped to his knees in the pulpit when some scruffy looking guy in jeans and a work shirt came in?

Would you recognize him, too? Or, to steal from Brennan Manning, would you think your pastor’s cheese was sliding off his cracker?

I wonder what I would do? I like to think I have enough discernment that I’d be able to recognize

the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world

but I really don’t know. Of course, as a believer, I know how Jesus is going to come the second time. It won’t be like the first (see John’s Revelation if you want details).

My point is this:

I don’t know about you, but it’s my tendency to stare through people sometimes. Especially people I don’t want to see; like the people at the Jordan river that long ago day did not want to see some Nazarene carpenter.

I stare through people that want something from me I am not prepared to give them.

People that are hard to look at for various reasons.

People that annoy me.

People.

But here is the truth: Jesus came for those people just like he came for me. He came for the old, for the rich, for the poor, for the ugly and annoying. He came for the beautiful.

And He also came for me.

Should I not, as a follower of His way, be prepared to treat those people the same way He would? Should I not recognize them for who they are in the same way He recognized me for who I am when I asked Him to be part of my life?

Should I not see them as His children? And with that recognition, in seeing a person just a little bit of the way God sees them, am I not seeing His face reflected?

Am I not recognizing Him, and being recognized?

Am I not at last becoming the person God had in mind when He made me?

*****

There’s a scene in the movie “The Breakfast Club” where the character Brian, played by Anthony Michael Hall, is trying to begin writing the paper assigned by the study hall “teacher.” He’s thinking, and talking to himself a little, and ultimately ends up sticking his pencil eraser up his nose while asking himself “who are you?”

Who are you?

I think this question is at the root of a great many problems. People talk all the time about having identity crises, and I think they’re absolutely right—it can be a crisis. It’s a little hard to lead your life—any life—if you don’t know who you are.

How can a person really answer that question?

You can give your name, but are the two or three words on your driver’s license who you really are? Aren’t they just words?

Who are we, then?

I think one of the most commonly asked questions in social situations where people don’t know each other well is “What do you do?” in reference to a person’s job.

Is that how we’re defined? By how we make money?

I’m a fry cook. Or a lawyer. Or a concierge. Or a pastor. Or stay-at-home mom. Or brother, sister, husband, or wife.

You get the point.

Is that who I am? My name is Tom, and I’m an Engineering Technician EG2A, brother four times, and husband of Jennifer, father of David and John.

Something is lost here.

Who am I?

What is my primary identity?

Is it any of those things I just mentioned? If it is, I think I’m missing a very big step.

I know that when I was at my absolute worst, before I knew Jesus, it would be a very fair statement to say I had no idea at all who I was. I went through several jobs trying to find one that suited me. I had several relationships where I barely scratched the surface of who the people were I was involved with, and I learned to medicate myself heavily with both food and alcohol because it made it so I didn’t have to think about who I was, or who I wasn’t.

But after the night I met Jesus, things became new, and different, and a little strange. I thought about Him (or tried to) before I did most things, or made big decisions.

Why?

Because, when I invited Him to be the Lord of my life, I became new. Born again, as they say.
I was a son, His son. Child of a father that loved me above all else. Child of a father that died a horrible death, for me.

My identity became Him.

I, Tom, the Engineering Technician EG2A, am a child of God.

That’s my identity, that’s who I am.

That’s who I became when Jesus entered my life and my heart.

I think about that now, and it makes a lot of my…motivations for my past transgressions clearer. Or at least what I felt to be the reasons behind them. It’s a lot easier to sin when you have no center, no compass. When all you have to define your reason for being is a vague sense of moral relativism.

And even now, when I sin (which happens all too frequently), the reason for it is that for the moment, I’ve forgotten who I am, and who my father is. My father on earth is Melvin L Wilkins. But my father in an eternal sense is Jesus, and none other.

But sometimes I still forget. The difference now, though, is that I’m aware of the opportunity to repent. To turn away from my sin and toward Jesus.

I was born in San Diego, but in a very real sense, I was also born on a dock over a small, very calm tributary of the Colorado River. Or reborn, I suppose. That’s actually at the root of one of my most profound experiences during my time with CVCF Healing Prayer, which I have never mentioned to anyone save the three others who were there, not even my wife.

I remember struggling to hear from Jesus during my prayer session, and finally, literally, asking Jesus if it would have been better had I not even been born. I was, after all, an accident.

After that, I closed my eyes and fell on my face, weeping. And what I saw was the river where I’d met Jesus that first time. I saw the man that had been myself kneeling, crying in the same way I was crying during the prayer session.

Then I felt a comforting hand on the back of my neck. A strong hand—the hand of a carpenter. And heard a voice speak into my heart “this is where you were born. And I meant you to be here.”

So here I am today.

Who am I? My name is Tom, and I am a child of my Abba.

That’s my primary identity. Before husband, or father, or brother, or anything else.

And I submit that if you’re a follower of Jesus and you don’t yet know what your primary identity is, you will never reach the fulfillment in Christ that can be reached once you do.

So ask yourself once more, who am I?

*****

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” 2 Corinthians 5:17

I’ve read second Corinthians lots of times–next to Romans, I probably read it the most out of everything in the New Testament after the synoptics. It’s a beautiful book, and teaches volumes about healing. And every time I read it, I have to stop and think about the above passage for a good long while. The thing is, aware of my salvation as I am, most days I don’t feel like a new creation. Most days I feel all crudded up by life, and by my own inclination to sin.

For me, part of becoming a Christian—maybe even the largest part—was being made aware of my sin. Prior to that awareness, I thought I was golden because I was a pretty good guy. I was nice to old people and animals. I should be good, shouldn’t I? Nothing to worry about?

At the first church I attended I heard the testimony of a young man who’d been to Bosnia during the war there. He told of shooting his weapon at what he thought was the enemy, but it had turned out to be a civilian. He found out later he’d killed the person. He’d been punishing himself for that death, and what he felt was murder ever since, even though the Army held him blameless. It took a number of years, and a ton of pain before he finally surrendered his heart to God.

And began to heal.

Another man told about how he’d stolen from his children to get money for drugs. He hadn’t come to Christ until he’d literally lost everything and had been living in a park.

A woman had been a prostitute for nearly ten years, also a slave to drugs, and had come to Jesus in a detox center.

There were countless stories like this, and I didn’t feel like I could relate to any of them. Still, they made me feel better about myself because I never did anything even remotely like these people—these sinners. I acknowledged my need for a savior, but felt that I had lots of time (and much less work to do to get one) because I was a good and decent guy. God would not condemn someone who was nice, now would he?

For years I thought along those lines.

Yet 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 before, 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. How can I be new when I feel so old? How can I be clean when it takes steel wool to scrub off my sin?
Here’s the thing I’ve been trying to think about, and remember.

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But 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, while I was still wallowing in my filth, 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, having been forgiven.

Before I existed, He died for me. He could have simply pardoned me, like a governor sparing a convict on death row. He didn’t do that. He assumed the punishment for my guilt, and paid it himself. He walked the green mile 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. I thought the same thing about Jenny, even after we’d shared our hearts with one another. I just could not get past those feelings for the longest time.

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.

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.

But 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, and nothing I could do on earth will make me worthier.

Yet I am loved, and because of Jesus, have a place in his kingdom. He is the bridge between me and His Father.

Imagine that.

Anyway, I plan to work on being a new creation, and trying to see myself the way God sees me. It’s a continuing mission, and it will never end.

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.

*****

I read an interview with director James Cameron right after Titanic came out where he mentioned that he’d written the entire movie in order to get to the central scene between Jack and Rose on the prow of the ship

“Jack, I’m flying!”

The whole movie more or less hinges on that moment, because the story really isn’t about the sinking. It’s about Jack choosing to get on the ship, and choosing to drown in order to save Rose at the end. Ostensibly, it’s a love story, and a more modern take on Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet—or at least on the central theme of it. But really, I think, it’s about several people’s decisions, and the consequences those decisions have on their lives.

And let’s look at Romeo & Juliet, since I mentioned it. There’s a scene where Romeo is comforting Mercutio after his very emotional diatribe/discourse on Queen Mab

“Peace, good Mercutio. Thou talkst of nothing.”

After that, he and his friends are talking about going to the party at the Capulet’s. There’ll be food there, and probably some girls. At that point in the story, Romeo is still pining away after Rosalind, and his friends are trying to get him to go to get his mind off things, and possibly even find someone else .

“…if love be rough with you, be rough with love…”

Romeo considers, and even though he has second thoughts

“…my mind misgives some consequence yet hanging in the stars..”

he ultimately goes. We all know what happens after that.

Of course, these are both ridiculously over-dramatized examples, but they well illustrate the point that our lives are deeply affected by the decisions we make. In fact, I’ve heard it said that we are the decisions we make. I think what that means is that our lives can be profoundly affected by a single decision, whether good or bad. Lives can change in a second, and in most cases, you don’t get another chance to make the right decision if you make it wrong the first time.

This is something I’ve done badly for most of my life, to disastrous consequences each time.

While of course I can’t speak for everyone, my downfall seems to be that I often act depending on how I’m feeling at that moment, without considering that I might soon feel differently, or without seeking counsel from someone else. I don’t really consider myself an impulsive person, and probably I’m much less impulsive now that I’ve gotten married and grown up a little (I guess you’d have to ask my wife how much—might not be as much as I think. I do still love potty humor), but there was a time not long ago when that wasn’t the case.

There was a catch phrase a while back, and you saw it everywhere—on bumper stickers, ties, signs, t-shirts, etc—WWJD. What would Jesus Do?

What would Jesus do?

That’s the hard part. When I think about that now, I take from it that if you’re a Christian, you need to involve Jesus in your life on more than just Sunday. You need to ask Him what he thinks about whatever you’re planning on doing. Ask him what He would have you do in a given situation. You won’t always receive a pointed direction, but sometimes the lack of a response is all the direction you need.

But this is not as easy as it seems.

Our tendency, one would imagine, is toward self-gratification much of the time, even as Christians. What’s best for me. What do I want to do? That kind of thing.

While I can’t speak for everyone, of course, this type of thinking has really led me to some wretched decisions. In regard to living situations, and credit, money, and also in the few relationships I’ve been involved in, both as a youth and an adult.

I think of one situation in particular, and what makes it worse is that I actually did ask someone what they thought in regard to the situation, and I suppose I even knew what God would want from me. I just didn’t listen. I wanted what I wanted, and who I wanted.

Just before Valentine’s day a little more than six years ago, a girl I was very much interested in, and had been flirting with (it had began lightly, but had developed into something of a more serious nature), thought it would be a good idea to have a Valentine’s day party, and all the single people amongst our group of friends (we all worked together) would attend. She had just become single herself—separated from her husband—and I’m ashamed to say I had a part in that, as well. I knew her marriage was in trouble, and I knew all about the sanctity of marriage in the eyes of God. I didn’t care. I could rationalize my behavior because her husband was a jerk, and I deserved some happiness, damn it. And that February, since I was the only one who had my own apartment, the decision was made to have the party at my place.

This girl wasn’t a Christian, and I knew on several levels that pursuing a relationship of any sort with her would be a colossally bad idea. But she was beautiful, and seemed to like me, and I fell for her. So I decided to pursue her, even though my closest friend (who was a Christian) advised me it was a bad idea, and dangerous to my walk.

She was right.

And then there came a point in the evening when it was very late and everyone was leaving. The girl and a couple more friends were still there and I remember them standing by the door and her looking back at me. “You guys go ahead,” she said. “I’m gonna hang around for a while. I’ll talk to you later.”

I didn’t even think about the consequences. I could’ve done a lot of things. I could’ve said I was tired. I could’ve said, “See you later.” I could’ve not had the party at all. But I did none of those things. I just went with the easy choice. And it took years to recover from it. I actually don’t think I fully healed from that situation until I met my wife to be, and discovered what it meant to be in a relationship that was blessed by God.

I guess my point in all this is mostly just figuring my own stuff out, or trying to. But I think I realize now that even if you don’t know God, it’s always a bad idea to go and do something just because, as the saying goes, “it seems like a good idea at the time.”

Trust me. It isn’t.

Think about it, for at least a second or two. Think before you speak, and definitely think before you act. Before you buy that car, or that expensive whatever-it-is.

Think.

Ask someone close to you that you trust what they think, and at least consider their advice before you do anything. Sometimes cooling off will give you some much needed perspective, and sometimes that’s all you need to keep you from throwing a monkey into your life. I have, as they say, learned the hard way. I’ve made horrible financial decisions, and relationship decisions, even bad educational decisions.

And suffered the consequences.

I’m actually still suffering the consequences for many of those choices if you take our living situation the first year of our marriage into consideration. Which also means that those bad decisions I made before I even met my wife affected her as well—and my stepson. And now, also my son John.

If you do know God, then you need to pray about things before you do them, even if it’s only a quick prayer. It’s still a direct line to the most wisdom a person could ever get.

There’s another saying that also applies. “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Also true.

Anyway, now I try to do the right thing as much as I can, what is right before God. It isn’t easy.

I think about what things will mean to God before I do them (at least I try to–though that isn’t always easy, either). It might even be that I consider too much before I act, what Pastor Mike would call the “paralysis of analysis.”

But anyway.

Now I have people in my life that I can go to with difficult things, people that will hold me accountable. I am fortunate enough to have people in several states that actually care about me enough to try and keep me from jacking up my life any more. I will do my best to listen to them.

*****

I’ve been spending a fair amount of time lately thinking about prayer.

I think with no small amount of conviction that I don’t devote enough time to this most important of activities. I think about the fact that now it will become more and more important as time passes, as I try and lead my family in the way that God intends. I’ve never been head of anything, spiritual or otherwise, yet here I am. I’m excited about following God’s will for my life, and walking the path He’s laid out for me.

But I’ve been wondering.

What will it be like? How will I know if I’m doing things correctly? Or if I’m really following His perfect will.

It will be through prayer, and prayer alone.

But.

Will I be praying for the furtherance of myself, and for my own edificiation? I have a lot of questions, and am looking forward to finding out the answers.

I realize that many of my concerns are little more than my own issues coming up and snapping at my heels, but that doesn’t mean I don’t feel a certain sense of inadequacy from time to time. Probably I’m not alone in this.

Once you come out of your prayer closet, you subject yourself not necessarily to the judgment of others, but at least to their scrutiny. And while I realize intellectually that it doesn’t matter at all to God what other people think of me (and that it shouldn’t matter to me, either), and that in regard to praying for my family, most of that will not be done either publicly or aloud, some part of me still worries about it, and does not want to be subject to any opportunity for ridicule.

I worry about….well, clamming up when the time does come, even if no one is there but my wife and kids. I worry about sounding like a tool when I do finally open my mouth. Because my family needs to know that I pray for them, and about them. The way I show them that is by doing it, which will occasionally mean doing it publicly, or at least aloud.

In the introduction to his book of prayers/poems, Poet Ted Loder says “We are never restricted to repeating the prayers of our tradition, however beautiful and helpful. Nor are there “right” prayers and “wrong” prayers, or “right” ways of praying, or “right” words with which to pray…”

He goes on in his poem, “How Shall I Pray”

How shall I pray?
Are tears prayers, Lord?
Are screams prayers,
or groans
or sighs
or curses?
Can trembling hands be lifted to you,
or clenched fists
or the cold sweat that trickles down my back
or the cramps that knot my stomach?
Will you accept my prayers, Lord.
my real prayers,
rooted in the muck and mud and rock of my life,
and not just my pretty, cut-flower, gracefully arranged
bouquet of words?
Will you accept me, Lord,
as I really am,
messed up mixture of glory and grime?

I think that’s really what it’s all about. Will God accept us and our prayers? Will the people we worship with do the same? What do you say so God really hears you? I think we have to simply ask Jesus. Why not? The disciples did.

“Lord, teach us to pray…” Luke 18:1

And I think, no I believe, that the important thing is the asking. It’s in the dialogue with Jesus, even if it seems one sided; as it so often will. But much can also come from the silences of God.

So I began to flip through the word, looking for references to prayer. I was thinking of using my concordance, but I wanted to actually turn the pages myself, you know? And I suppose it’s pretty ridiculous to say it, but the first thing I discovered is that there’s a lot of prayer in the Bible. It’s kind of intimidating, actually. I won’t list everything I found here, obviously. We’d be here until the cows came home.

One thing I learned pretty much at the beginning is that it will take a lifetime to learn everything I want or need to know about prayer. And that’s OK.

I suppose in a way, that’s the idea; taking a lifetime to draw nearer to Him. Often not getting any answers until the end, when you stand before God and go right or left.

So the idea is to seek him with all your heart, and then the hours, minutes and seconds are filled with the knowledge, the absolute certainty that He is at the end of the last mile, and waiting for you with open arms and a “well done, good and faithful servant.” But for that to happen–for that to have even a chance of happening, you have to start talking to him. It’s like that old saying, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

Or in this case, a single prayer. Take these words, given to the disciples by Jesus in Matthew 6:

9 Pray like this:
Our Father in heaven,
may your name be kept holy.
10 May your Kingdom come soon.
May your will be done on earth,

as it is in heaven.
11 Give us today the food we need,
12 and forgive us our sins,
as we have forgiven those who sin against us.
13 And don’t let us yield to temptation,
but rescue us from the evil one.

If I may indulge in a sports metaphor for a moment, it’s like running downfield with a football clutched in your arms and every enemy jersey on the field is running toward you at top speed. You know the end zone is there, even though you can’t see it through the forest of linebackers and safeties. But since you know it’s there, you struggle to find a path through the defense, and you end up twisting and turning, and yes, getting hit on your way there. And along the way, you find blockers to thrust the enemy aside; and you can sometimes open up your own “hole” in the same manner.

But how do you do that? How do you open up a hole in the enemy’s line and give yourself an opening to run downfield?

Well, one way is through practicing the spiritual disciplines and personal intercession–that is, personal prayer. You block for yourself, in a sense. I could extend the metaphor even further, but I probably ought to stop myself before I start losing people (if there are any out there reading this in the first place). I think maybe the easiest way to explain it is that it seems to me you aren’t going to get any help unless you ask for it. And ask for it. And ask for it some more, sometimes. Jesus will not force himself on anyone. We have all the freedom in the world, and what it really amounts to is that we can either ask for a life preserver or drown.

It’s just funny. Everyone has a different idea about prayer, even those who don’t do it. I imagine quite a few people think of it as a way for people who believe in something that doesn’t exist to find solace, and try to make sense out of the senseless. To make themselves feel better. Which I think is precisely the point (making sense out of the senseless)—but maybe that’s just me. And yes, I think prayer–and faith, for that matter–does make you feel better. That’s the point. It’s easy to go around feeling crappy.

Something else I noticed is that it wasn’t until I really started studying up that I realized I was remarkably deficient in that very department—that is, I had not spent nearly enough time praying, and…studying up. My discipleship was inconsistent at best, and occasionally non-existent. So I looked up “prayer” in the back of my bible and began to read (intercession is a helpful search as well).

One thing that caught my eye right away was John 14:13. “And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father.”

It seems obvious that God isn’t talking about asking for a pony or a new bike. I don’t believe the Holy Spirit will intercede for Christmas presents. So what’s he talking about then? Why should we ask him for anything?
Look at the text. “So that the son may bring glory to the father.” (emphasis added)

Oswald Chambers says:

Think of the last thing you prayed about—were you devoted to your desire or to God? Determined to get some gift of the Spirit or to get at God? “Your Heavenly Father knoweth what things ye have need of before ye ask Him.” The point of asking is that you may get to know God better. “Delight thyself also in the Lord; and he shall give thee the desires of thine heart.” Keep praying in order to get a perfect understanding of God Himself.

For me, the point is that when I truly began to know God, and know about Him, when I began to recognize Him as Lord at first thought instead of second, the desires of my heart began to change.

That was one of the things so wonderful about Christ for me: the clarity he brings, if I ask him for it—if, when at prayer, I seek discernment, or wisdom. Though I know God wants me to bring all to Him, there comes a point when you realize just because you can ask God for a pony or new bike doesn’t mean you should. Prayer becomes more of a conduit for edification and enlightenment rather than simply a litany of wants, though it is that, too. But the wants will change with Christ.

Look at Job 42:10. “After Job had prayed for his friends, the Lord made him prosperous again and gave him twice as much as he had before.”

Let me just say that I don’t expect God to make me prosperous, though I recognize that he certainly could. I guess it’s just that maybe when you get to a point where prayer is more about intercession than want, isn’t that more along the lines of what he wants us to seek in prayer? Also, note what the verse says—“after Job had prayed for his friends…” Job did not just start hurling petitions at God. He prayed for his friends, and then he was blessed. Prayer is not something to be self-centered about–it’s something that changes us from the inside out, and when we put other’s needs before our own (as the scriptures command), Jesus will meet our needs as well.

And I think of Jesus’ intercession in Gethsemane, praying so fervently his sweat fell around him like blood (Luke 21:44), and it occurs to me that maybe that’s the type of urgency that should be sought in prayer, at least once in a while.

How often have I done that? How often has anyone?

I realize, of course, that prayer isn’t always about desperate entreaties. But intercession calls for something more than just thanking God and asking for a blessing, at least it seems that way to me. I mean, yes, take everything to Him. Just don’t make prayer merely about hurling petitions. Because in the lifting up of others, don’t we lift ourselves as well? And are we not drawn nearer to Him in the process (James 4:10)?

I want to draw nearer to the Lord, any way I can. I want him to draw nearer to me. I want Him to bless my family and friends, to lift them up, and to lift me up as well. I want Him to protect those I love from the enemy and his inevitable attacks. I want Him to protect me, too.

(sidebar–if you want a really great picture of the war going on in the spiritual realms on our behalf, check out Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness and Piercing the Darkness)

Then I found another Oswald Chambers entry:

We are too much given to thinking of the Cross as something we have to get through; we get through it only in order to get into it. The Cross stands for one thing only for us – a complete and entire and absolute identification with the Lord Jesus Christ, and there is nothing in which this identification is realized more than in prayer. ‘Your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask Him.’

Then why ask? The idea of prayer is not in order to get answers from God; prayer is perfect and complete oneness with God. If we pray because we want answers, we will get huffed with God. The answers come every time, but not always in the way we expect, and our spiritual huff shows a refusal to identify ourselves with Our Lord in prayer. We are not here to prove God answers prayer; we are here to be living monuments of God’s grace.

‘I say not that I will pray the Father for you: for the Father Himself loveth you.’ Have you reached such an intimacy with God that the Lord Jesus Christ’s life of prayer is the only explanation of your life of prayer? Has Our Lord’s vicarious life become your vital life? “At that day” you will be so identified with Jesus that there will be no distinction. When prayer seems to be unanswered, beware of trying to fix the blame on someone else. That is always a snare of Satan. You will find there is a reason which is a deep instruction to you, not to anyone else.”

Which is, I suppose, yet another way of saying God’s ways are not our ways. That’s something that’s pretty stinkin’ hard to remember sometimes, and it should be the easiest thing of all. God became human in the form of Jesus of Nazareth. But He is not, by nature, human. He is other. He is God.

Let me turn country for just a second or two—In the immortal words of Garth Brooks:

Sometimes I thank God,for unanswered prayers.
Remember when you’re talkin’ to the man upstairs,
that just because he doesn’t answer
Doesn’t mean he don’t care…
Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.

How true is that? Geez. If God had answered my prayers the way I wanted Him to a couple of years ago, I’d still be in a horrible relationship and drifting farther and farther away from God.

Instead, I have been blessed beyond any expectation or agenda. I am a husband. A father.

And a son.

*****

I saw this cartoon when I was a kid, and it stuck in my head, for some reason. Every now and again, a picture from it will just sort of float up in my mind, like that little envelope that comes up on my office Outlook when I get an email.

I don’t remember if it was a Looney Tunes cartoon, or something else. I don’t remember if it was one of the musical variety, or the more traditional slapstick kind. I just remember this one character–it was a stuffed looking dragon made from many different colored fabrics, and rather haphazardly stitched together (that’s the way I remember it, anyway). In the cartoon, I think it was called a “calico dragon.”

I was thinking about that last night for some reason. I remember the tongue on the thing flicking out, and thinking the dragon was not frightening, or really even funny–just ridiculous looking. And it occurred to me that I sometimes feel like that stupid stitched together collection of fabric pieces, or at least see myself
that way. The dragon in the cartoon did not really seem to fit together the way it was supposed to.

And that’s how I’ve felt in the past, up until fairly recently.

Like I was not stitched together the way I was supposed to be. Like the stitches I did have holding me together were not strong, and I never really felt like I could trust the thread.

Like the pieces of my fabric were too many and too varied to really even make sense together.

Like they could never really fit, not matter how I stitched them.

And I was right.

And that was the problem.

I had always done the stitching. I had always tried to sew up the tears and rents in my fabric. I had taken the thread from wherever I could find it.

But the truth was that I could never fix myself, no matter how much I tried. I could never stitch up the rents and tears in my fabric. I could never connect the pieces of my fabric together in a way that made sense to anyone, least of all myself.

I could not do it myself.

I don’t know if that dragon in the cartoon tried to patch himself together, but when I recall it in my mind, that’s how I see it.

And that’s how I saw myself. Many tattered pieces held together with fine, gossamer thread.

Weak thread.

I needed a thread that was stronger. I need a thread that is stronger.

And the best part of it, the One doing the sewing will accept me whether or not my pieces are tightly knitted together. Yet He wants desperately to stitch me back up. And Once I accept him as Tailor, once I allow him to hold the pieces of my life separately, work them through his hands, and bind them together with the thread of life, then piece by piece, my mending will begin. That was, and sometimes remains, very hard for me to see, or remember.

Right before I left San Diego, I heard the men in my small group talking about parents, and some of the wounds they’d received from them (and the healing of those wounds for some). I thought of that calico dragon from my childhood. I could see him very clearly.

And I remembered he was me. But slightly different. While some of the patches were still ragged and barely held together, others were bound tightly, with bright shining thread. And while the colors still did not match, the way those pieces fit together made sense. And I was able to perceive with a little more clarity that my mending had indeed begun—had in fact been underway for some time, based on the amount of stitches.

None of this probably makes sense to anyone but me, but I suppose me is who I’m writing this for, anyway. Nothing like navel gazing to help a person figure out some things.

*****

I used to feel like part of me was missing. I could pretend to be a complete person all I wanted. I could walk around like everyone else. I could work, I could go to the mall, or to the movies. I could go to church. I could do whatever I wanted.

But something was missing.

I felt like an imposter.

Like I was pretending. I looked like I felt OK, and I usually said the right things, and to anyone that wasn’t inside my mind, things would seem

just perfect.

But during these times, it felt like I was yearning for something, and I didn’t know what.

Like I was searching, and not finding.

Like having an endless thirst, and not being able to slake it.

It was like there was a hole, right through the center of me. I could almost feel wind whistling through it. It was cold, and it was painful, and it seemed there was nothing I could do about it.

Except try to fill it.

And nothing fit.

Nothing fit because this hole was not shaped like anything on earth.

I believe now we were all made with this emptiness, with this hollow place in our centers. A place designed by our maker to be filled–with light, and love, and completeness. You can stuff it with anything you like. Some things will even work for a time, but eventually, they will begin to come loose around the edges, and things will begin to stream in again, and eventually, what you have stuffed into the hole will come flying out, and there will be the emptiness again.

Because only one thing will fit there, and stay.

My tendency has always been to try and fill the emptiness with things other than what was designed to fit there–things other than Jesus. For a time, it was food. That worked best of all, so far. It made me feel better to just pig out. Later, it would be the same with alcohol. Binging was fun, and easy, and when I did it, I didn’t have to think about anything, and it was great.

Except when it wasn’t. When the party was over, or the meal was over, and I was left with myself, I was not happy at all. The truth is, I was disgusted with the “wonder” of me. And what I had tried to fill my emptiness with was gone. The food, the fermented malt beverages, the empty relationships

all gone.

And I was empty again.

Maybe it isn’t those things for you. Maybe it’s something else-like drugs, or sex, or pornography. Maybe it’s video games, or maybe you adopt a lot of cats.

And none of those things work. You still feel hollow. Not all of the time, but when you really sit down, or when you lay down at night, or when you ask yourself if you’re really happy, or really feel complete, the answer is almost always no.

Something is missing.

I was hollow for 32 years. I spent my life trying various things to fill my emptiness. I nearly ate myself to death, literally.

And it didn’t work.

I became not an everyday drinker, but a serious binge drinker. I would pound beers until I was sick, and the result was always the same.

It didn’t work. After the buzz was gone, and the sickness was gone, and the hangover was gone, I still felt hollow.

And then I discovered that sometimes empty relationships felt a lot like love, or what I imagined love would feel like. But when the person was gone, and I had to think once again about my life, I had to admit that it wouldn’t have worked if I had a new person in my life every weekend.

And I was still hollow.

And then there came a day where I absolutely couldn’t do it anymore. I was on a trip with my friends to see a baseball game, and our intention was to eat as much bad food as we could, and drink as much beer as our stomachs could handle.

Instead, God spoke to me on the first night of the trip, before we even got to Peoria. I remember standing on the dock leading down to the river, holding a beer cooler in each hand, and just feeling overwhelmed with so many different feelings, and memories. I remember thinking that I could no longer fill the emptiness through my center, that I never had been able to.

I did not even want to try anymore.

So for the first time in my life, kneeling on the rough wood of the dock, I asked Jesus to fill that emptiness, because I was tired of being hollow.

And I was filled.

And it was good.

The difference between my life now, and my life then, is that now I have hope. Now I have help.
I am not in it alone.

How can an entity I can neither see nor touch give me hope? I can’t explain how, I only know that He does. And it changed my life. I am the same person as before, but I am also different.

When I begin to feel like my old self, when I begin to feel hollow, now I can turn to Jesus. Now I can reach out for His touch, and grasp the edge of his garment, and be healed. I don’t have to reach out for food, or drink, or anything else, though that temptation will always be there. Now, I don’t need to fill that emptiness with anything else, because it isn’t there anymore.

Jesus is.

*****

I don’t remember my father very well. He’s been gone since 1984, and sometimes it’s hard to picture his face when I think about him. I have a few of these cassette tapes he made as a sort of narration to these 8mm movies he used to make all the time, and I can hear what his voice sounds like. It’s hard to put that voice with the pictures I do have. That makes me a little sad, when I think about it. It’s also sad that he’ll never meet my wife, or my kids.

My memories of my dad take the form of a series of incidents—of particular memories—rather than a continuous narrative. I always had the idea in my head that since my father and I weren’t that close, I didn’t have any of the scars, or wounds, or traumatic childhood memories that many of the kids I knew with absent fathers had to deal with. I didn’t realize how deeply my experience with my own father had affected my life until I really tried to think about it, and remember.

My experience with my dad was not abusive, by any means—nor exactly neglectful. It was just not…particularly loving or nurturing. I can understand that to an extent, because men of his era weren’t raised in the “touchy-feely” style of parenting you see everywhere today. Seems to me most men coming of age in the 1930’s and 40’s simply were not raised to be in touch with their feelings, or anyone else’s. My dad did the best he could with the tools he had to work with. But he was definitely not Ward Cleaver.

He would sometimes bring me places with him, but all I can remember about that was sitting in his truck with the windows rolled up and watching him yell at people (he was a cement mason, and I got to visit a few job sites). I remember he would sometimes get so mad the big veins would stand out on the side of his neck and his face would turn red. I didn’t inherit his temper, thank goodness. I’m hoping it doesn’t skip down to John, either, though based on his “hungry” cry, he does get pretty pissed about things.

Other times Dad would take me sailing with him, which was something extremely difficult for me. Actually, I hated it, but was made to go often enough that I became resigned to it, after a fashion–seasickness was the rule rather than exception. I didn’t always puke, but I did always feel like I should be. I could tell that it frustrated/disappointed him to no end. He had his sea legs, and I just…didn’t. I felt like I should have enjoyed myself, and something was wrong because I didn’t.

Still, I would do my best to elicit praise (or really even attention) from him whenever possible. I would bring him coffee in the mornings on weekends when I was small. I would run to the liquor store to fetch the paper. I would sometimes ask to go places with him I really didn’t even want to go just to tag along, and be with him. I remember riding to Thrifty to get ice cream with him on a couple of occasions when I was small, and sitting on the back of his motorcycle, clutching his desperately. It was thrilling and terrifying at the same time.

I see a lot of that now with David. At 6, he is possessed of a curiosity about nearly everything, and every time I leave the house, he asks if he can come along. Doesn’t matter where I’m going. And I can reach back and see myself doing the same thing with my own father. I wonder if he had the same thoughts in his head I do with David? I wonder if he struggled with the same things I do? The same doubts?

In any case, I can now appreciate what it’s like to be the father of a small boy at + 40 and counting. It’s not easy. And I don’t want to leave the wrong impression. There are plenty of good memories as well. Good and bad, in equal measure.

My favorite memory of my dad was when I was maybe 5. I would get up early sometimes, so I would be there when he left for work. I would say, “see you later, alligator,” and he would respond, “after a while, crocodile.” Not original, I know now, but it meant a lot to me then. Sadly, the older I got, the less I would get up to see him off, and our little routine soon disappeared.

But for the most part, my efforts were to little avail. I’ve spoken to my sisters about it, and the consensus was that it was just how dad was. He would provide, but it seemed he would not or could not provide much affection. I can’t speak for all of my siblings, but I can’t remember much but apathy from him toward my life. I was pretty much free to do my own thing. I think I would have been satisfied with even a little validation, but like many of the other things in my childhood, the only place I got it was from my sisters.
The thing that was so frustrating about that was that I wanted him to care what I was doing. I wanted it desperately, but the only time that seemed to happen was when the possibility arose of costing him some money. Like shopping for school clothes, or getting school pictures taken.

I’m sure that much of it was that his work was seasonal, and we often didn’t have much money. Regardless of the reason, what it began to feel like after a while was that I was an obligation, and should not expect to have much spent on me–time, or money, or anything else. I don’t know if that was true, but I do know that’s how it felt. I can still feel it. So I would wear old clothes that used to belong to my brother, or were obtained at thrift shops. If it was new, it usually came from one of my sisters. Dad made it very clear that he did not like to have to “waste” money on things (I know how the preceding paragraph sounds, believe me. I’m just trying for a little clarity about where much of my needs as a child ranked in the household priorities, or at least how I felt they did).

Still, Christmases were not that bad (thanks to my sisters, usually). The interesting thing about them is that they were more my parents growing up than my parents were. Anyway, back to my father.

I think the thing lacking most in my relationship with my dad was something I didn’t even know was missing until much later in my life, and when I did, things began to make more sense to me. Well, the plain truth was that he while he provided for me, he did not really father me, in the traditional sense. By that I mean doing dad things–I’m not implying an infidelity by any means–anyone who sees me and a picture of my dad would know I inherited more than just his road rage.

In my opinion, one the main responsibilities of a father is to raise his son, not just being there as he grows, but participating in his life, and teaching him. Passing on knowledge, and truth. Not just throwing a football around, but being there in more than a physical sense. I missed most of that. And I would drive off a bridge before I would give David and John that kind of childhood.

Yet…

In a sense, I can’t blame my father that much–he was just about 40 when I came along, and probably thought he was long since done with kids. And when I got older, he was still doing a hard job at a much older age than most of the men he worked for and with. It must have been so difficult. Work was dependent on so many things, and money was tight most of the time.

One of the things I’ve struggled with most since becoming a believer is the notion that Jesus will think of me and treat me the same way my earthly father did. And that assumption helped to generate a great many lies about God, that I’m ashamed to say seemed very much like truth for much of my life.

1. He did not care about me
2. He did not mean for me to be here
3. He did not love me
4. I was not important to him
5. My wants and needs as a child did not matter to him

The Lord has been working on helping me find the truth of these statements, and others like them.

Interesting how difficult it is to separate my memories of my earthly father with my (mis) conceptions about Jesus. It something that I continually need to refresh myself on, and in truth, it seems like it’s going to take forever. Another useful application of truth to pray for would be the realization that healing is a lifelong process. I know this, but sometimes I don’t know it.

This is something I’ve been battling for what feels like years, and I periodically find myself wandering off into the wilderness, spiritually speaking. Sometimes I feel like God is not listening to me, and I allow myself to believe that he shouldn’t be. I feel like a little kid, following him around and pulling at his shirttails, begging for attention. The hardest part for me, more often than not, is connecting my head knowledge of God with what I know I mean to Him in my heart.

Because knowing is one thing, but feeling is another.

Lately I’ve been realizing more and more that the healing I’ve experienced is great, but I should by no means think I’ve arrived. I am not complete, and I won’t be until I stand before the Throne and Jesus says “Well done.” Hopefully.

What does Jeremiah say? I will find Him when I seek him with all my heart? Something like that. Have I been seeking Him with all my heart? Have I really? Have I prostrated myself before Him in prayer, and thrown myself on the altar? Have I earnestly and truly sought his counsel? Have I asked him to be my Father?

The answer is sometimes.

When I am at my most bleak, certainly. But have I been sharing the blessings of my life with Him? Of course, He knows well enough how blessed I am, but have I been going to Him in delight at what he’s shown me and done in my life? Have I been running to Him and saying, “Look, daddy, Look!”

No.

I haven’t. I didn’t do that with my dad, either. When I look at him through my adult eyes, I see that he probably did the best he could. He loved me in the way he was capable of loving. He was not a bad person, but he was older than his years, and so very tired. And in that regard, I need to forgive him his shortcomings. I can’t believe it was so hard to really “get” that. I’ve been working on forgiving other people in my life for a long time, and it never occurred to me Dad was one of those people.

I need to confess my own shortcomings as a son as well, and ask Jesus to forgive them. I don’t know if my father is with Him or not, but I know I’ll find out one day–hopefully not for a long time.

There are many things I want to do with my life, and time is relatively short.

I guess I better get started.

Read It as Your Testimony

I did a scripture reading this past Sunday at church. It was fun–I like to do that sort of thing whenever I get the chance. I was talking to the worship leader a little bit after me and another gentleman practiced our reading, and he told me about this exercise he’d done in a grad school class that I’m still thinking about.

What they did was read scripture, and then the intructor had them read it again, except this time they read it as their testimony.

Darrin told me there were more than a few people tearing up, and I can see why. There’s nothing that makes people feel more than hearing someone like them talk about an experience they may have gone through themselves.

What I’ve been thinking about since that discussion is, what scripture would I read as my testimony?

It actually didn’t take a lot of thought–I’ve always seen more than a little of myself in the Parable of the Lost Son, as told in Luke 15. I’ve written about it several times (this being the third), and I think that nearly ever time I read it, God shows me something new about myself.

The Lost Son is so much like I was–like I am sometimes still. He wants what he feels he’s due, and he wants it now.

And his father, being full of grace, gives him what he wants. He loves him. And the son takes his inheritance and squanders it, pretty much drinking and whoring until it’s gone. Not that I ever went whoring, but I did waste my inheritance for a very long time.

What happened was that–like the son–I hit the bottom like the Titanic. And the only place I could go was back to the Father. Same as the Son in the parable, who returned in spite of himself. Who didn’t want to return, but realized that was the only option left. That, or death.

So the son returns to the father, and the father welcomes him. My NIV depicts the Lost Son’s turnabout like this:

17“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’ 20So he got up and went to his father.

”But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him…”

I guess these words are something I need to be reminded of, so I can remind others. So I can make sure my kids know it as well.

And make no mistake, there are still times when I feel like the Lost Son. There are times when I feel I need to throw myself at my father’s feet and beg forgiveness. Lately, lots of times.

Recently, again, I’ve felt like I’ve been wasting away my inheritance. Wasting it with my feeble prayer life and inconsistent discipleship. Wasting it with my poor example to David of what a Christ-following man looks like. Wasting it by not being the strong leader my family needs me to be, especially with John here, growing so fast, and the challenges that presents.

And now, I’m ready to come back to my Father. Amazing how God just brings things to the surface of your heart sometimes, like the impurities brought forth during the refining process for precious metals.

The metal is heated, so the impurities come to the surface. Why? So they can be removed, by the refiner. And it’s important to remember the refining process is not done just once. It takes a long time.

It takes a lifetime, and we don’t get to shine like new gold until we get to Heaven, and sit at the feet of the Father.

And so today, I turn to my old friend Luke. I had to read the scripture again this morning, courtesy of the wonderful and readily available Bible Online.

And then I read it again. But maybe it isn’t just me.

Who among those who believe has not done the same? Who hasn’t been the lost son? Who hasn’t taken generosity and love for granted? Who hasn’t, in a sense, demanded their inheritance early? I think of all the times I’ve responded to God in a like manner. Maybe that’s the point, though. At least for me.

Personal conviction. And awareness that I need to repent anew.

Something always strikes me about the Lost Son parable (AKA the parable of he prodigal). Not so much the son’s apparent repentance–to me that smacked of forced contrition, not true remorse. He’s broke, and hungry, and has nowhere else to go. He’s just relating what he’s going to do, not baring his heart, or even seeking forgiveness. He came to his senses, it says, but that’s all. The son could have just been talking about finding a meal at that point.

He’d wasted away his inheritance. There was a famine. Why not return to the source of the inheritance, where the servants fared better than he was at the time?

Certainly, all those things are important. Yet what impacted me most was the father.

His grace toward the son.

The passage mentions that he sees his son when he was still a long way off, so he had to be outside looking for him. Scanning the horizon. Desperate to see his son return. I can see him standing there, shading his eyes with a hand.

Looking.

Waiting.

Hoping.

Not seeing.

Yet every day, looking.

It does not say how long he looked for his son. Only that:

”But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him…”

It kind of makes you think about the shepherd looking for his ONE lost sheep, rather than writing it off because he still has 99. He will pursue the lost one, and he will be filled with Joy when he makes it back home with that one sheep across his shoulders.

That’s the same Joy God feels when we return to the fold.

How he felt when, like the prodigal, I came to my senses. When I stood, looking across the Colorado river with tears running down my face and holes in the knees of my jeans. Was it forced contrition with me? Perhaps in a sense it was. But God did not care how I came back to him—just that I returned.

He felt joy. And scripture also tells us that angels rejoice when a sinner turns from his life of sin.

But look again at the father’s reaction upon seeing his son.

“his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him…”

He did not stand waiting with his arms crossed, brow furrowed with displeasure. He did not grudgingly accept a tentative and awkward apology.

He was filled with compassion for his son, and he ran to him.

He ran.

He ran, probably forgoing all semblance of dignity.

He ran, robes flying, probably with arms extended. Running across the field to his lost son.

He ran, and he was filled with compassion.

He ran, and when he got to him at last, he threw his arms around him, and kissed him.

No condemnation, no judgement.

Just love.

He threw him a party, and killed the fatted calf.

Today, I read that passage again and I thought about Jesus scanning the horizon for me, desperate to see me. I thought of him running toward me with his arms outstretched, running across a field to get to me. He’d been waiting for me all the time I’d been holding out, waiting for me to come to him. Waiting for me to come burdened, and afraid, and encumbered by the world and the lies I’d come to believe about both God and myself.

He waited for me, even though I was not ready. Me, in my dirty robes.

He waited for me with his shepherd’s arms outstretched. He waited for me, in my unclean and starving state—impure in both thought and action.

Me, covered in the filth of my journey home.

Me.

And when he saw me, he could wait no longer.

He ran. And when he finally reached me, he threw his arms around me
and kissed me.

And there was rejoicing in heaven.

Open Letter

Representative Grijalva:

Let me just go on the record as saying I hate blanket statements. Inevitably, they’re made out of anger, or some feeling of injustice. And they are inevitably almost always flawed, prejudiced, or just plain wrong.
Like the following statement made by you, Representative Raul Grijalva, regarding votes against you in the recent election:

“I’ve never had the privilege of getting a majority there, and I probably won’t have that in the future. You bring projects in, clinics, a new port of entry, and it doesn’t seem to have an effect. But the politics are more polarized and more racial in Pima and Santa Cruz, so you deal with what you get.”

Indeed, Representative Grijalva. Deal with it.

Yes, the politics probably are more polarized here. But to me, that’s to be expected. Look at the economy here, and the proximity to the border. Look at the major industry—farming, and developmental testing of equipment, weapons, and vehicles for the military. People here depend on these things for their ways of life. We need industry, and customers to come here.

Not boycotts.

Do not forget, sir, that you represent the people of this state—even the ones that do not agree with you and the way you vote on issues that are important to them. So when a senate bill is proposed (that provides the means to enforce Federal legislation ALREADY IN PLACE) to attempt to slow down illegal immigration, and approved with a significant majority, and you encourage a boycott of your OWN STATE in regard to service and industry, I think Yumans found it decidedly off-putting.

And when it came time for re-election, and you, Representative Grijalva, saw you weren’t going to get the votes here you’d get in your other counties, you made your blanket statement. Which to me, sounds like if people in Yuma didn’t vote for you, it’s because of racial motivations of one sort or another.

That may be true of some people, maybe even many people.

But it is not true of everyone.

My wife’s aunt is a staunch defender of Representative Grijalva, and maintains that Representative Grijalva should not be held accountable for encouraging a boycott because the statement was made out of anger, regarding “crap” legislation.

I don’t care why he said it, only that he did, and he meant it. That’s not in dispute. And in my opinion, that’s why a lot of people did not vote for him that might have otherwise.

But not me, Representative Grijalva. Not me.

I didn’t vote for you because you either voted for something I find morally reprehensible, or voted against something that I support.

It’s my right to NOT vote for you if I disagree with something you stand for, or voted for. So when I don’t vote for you, you have no right to imply anything about my motivations. But since you did, allow me to express why I did not vote for you, and will not vote for you next election, either.

You:

Voted NO on allowing Courts to decide on “God” in Pledge of Allegiance. (Jul 2006)
Voted YES on expanding research to more embryonic stem cell lines. (Jan 2007)
Voted YES on allowing human embryonic stem cell research. (May 2005)
Voted NO on restricting interstate transport of minors to get abortions. (Apr 2005)
Voted NO on making it a crime to harm a fetus during another crime. (Feb 2004)
Voted NO on banning partial-birth abortion except to save mother’s life. (Oct 2003)
Voted NO on Constitutionally defining marriage as one-man-one-woman. (Jul 2006)
Voted NO on Constitutional Amendment banning same-sex marriage. (Sep 2004)
Voted NO on constitutional amendment prohibiting flag desecration. (Jun 2003)

If you keep sailing along on your present course, sir, securing another victory may not be so easy next time. You may represent the people of this county, Representative. But based on your votes, you do not represent me.

Like the disciples…

We were driving home from church Saturday night, and Jenny and I were trying to explain to David what “Big Church” was about that night—it had been about prayer for the “Persecuted Church,” and less a sermon than a prayer meeting, with the prayers guided by Paul and several of the church elders. It was pretty cool.

We explained to David that there were places in the world where it was dangerous to believe, because the people there did not like Christians, in some cases to the point of imprisoning them for their beliefs, in some cases killing them for their faith in Jesus. We told him how our church has missionaries in some of those places.

He didn’t know what a missionary was, and when we tried to explain it to him, he asked if they were “like the disciples.”

We thought about it for a minute, and while that wasn’t exactly what we were getting at, the kid did have a point. It seems to me the disciples were the very first missionaries, the first people sent out to show the world the love of Jesus.

And with the exception of John (the beloved), they paid the price for their unflinching faith.

I remember hearing my pastor in San Diego talk about that very thing on more than one occasion. He explained that except for John, they were all martyred.

Though it’s difficult to determine exactly the events of their lives (and deaths) which are not depicted in Scripture, there is a wealth of information available. A brief look on the web turned up the following details:

“The Deaths of the Apostles

Matthew suffered martyrdom in Ethopia, killed by a sword wound.

Mark died in Alexandria, Egypt, dragged by horses through the streets until he was dead.

Luke was hanged in Greece as a result of his tremendous preaching to the lost.

John was boiled in a huge basin of boiling oil during a wave of persecution in Rome. However, he was miraculously delivered from death. John was then sentenced to the mines on the prison island of Patmos where he wrote his prophetic Book of Revelation. The Apostle John was later freed and returned to serve as a bishop in modern Turkey. He died an old man, the only Apostle to die peacefully.

Peter,was crucified upside down on an x-shaped cross, according to Church tradition, because he told his tormentors that he felt unworthy to die the same way that Jesus Christ had died (mention is also made of Peter’s wife suffering the same fate).

James the Just, the leader of the Church in Jerusalem and brother of Jesus, was thrown down more than a hundred feet from the southeast pinnacle of the Temple when he refused to deny his faith in Christ. When they discovered that he survived the fall, his enemies beat James to death with a fuller’s club. This was the same pinnacle where Satan had taken Jesus during the Temptation.

James the Greater, a son of Zebedee, was a fisherman by trade when Jesus called him to a lifetime of ministry. As a strong leader of the Church, James was ultimately beheaded at Jerusalem. The Roman soldier who guarded James watched amazed as James defended his faith at his trial. Later, the officer walked beside James to the place of execution. Overcome by conviction, he declared his new faith to the judge and knelt beside James to accept beheading as a Christian.

Bartholomew, also known as Nathanael, was a missionary to Asia. He witnessed about our Lord in present day Turkey. He was whipped to death for his preaching in Armenia.

Thomas was speared and died on one of his missionary trips to establish the Church in India.

Jude, another brother of Jesus, was killed with arrows after refusing to deny his faith in Christ.

Matthias, the Apostle chosen to replace the traitor Judas Iscariot, was stoned and beheaded.

Barnabas, one of the group of seventy disciples, was stoned to death at Salonica.

Paul was tortured and then beheaded by the evil Emperor Nero at Rome in A.D. 67. Paul endured a lengthy imprisonment which allowed him to write his many epistles to the Churches he had formed throughout the Roman Empire. These letters, which taught many of the foundational doctrines of Christianity, from a large portion of the New Testament.”

It got me wondering. How far would I go to defend my faith? Would I take a sword to the belly rather than deny Jesus? Would I allow myself to be dragged along behind horses until I was battered and scraped to death? Would I suffer any of those fates for my faith?

The answer, of course, is “I don’t know.” Because I don’t. I’d like to say I would, but the truth is, there’s no way to tell unless something like that actually happens to me. I think of people like Cassie Bernall, hiding out in the library at Columbine, and when confronted by the killers, answered “Yes” to the killers when they asked if she believed in God. They shot her in the face at point blank range.

People say they probably would have killed her anyway, and that may even be true. But she didn’t know that.

My old pastor at Calvary Baptist once told me words to the effect that he hoped for the chance to be a martyr someday. So he would go on mission trips to places that gave him the best chance for that to happen. That seemed like some kind of crazy at the time, but now I wonder. Is it a bad thing to want the chance to pay the ultimate price for your faith?

Jesus did it for us.

No answers today, but the little gears in my head are turning. Just coming off a very long weekend with not a lot of sleep, so profound thinking is not something I’m capable of at the moment.

Just take a moment to think about what your faith means to you, and what you would do for Jesus.

How far would you go?

The Unbuildable Bridge

Just thought of a picture, but maybe it’s really a little more than that.

A great country is divided into basically two sections, separated by a vast canyon. There are many smaller offshoots and fissures, but for the purposes of my illustration, we’re going to focus on what appears to be the two main sections.

Now, because the country is so divided, it actually ends up being much less great than it could. The differences in the two sides are many, but so are the similarities. So what eventually happens is that the people living in each divided half of the great country end up staring at each other over the vast canyon. Both sides know the country was not so divided once, but they can’t remember how to get back to that way of thinking, and living. They can’t remember how to pull the two sides back together.

Sometimes they shout epithets at each other, and always they’re thinking that each side knows a better way—the only way—to actually bring the two halves of the great country back together.

Eventually, one side or the other decides the best thing to do is build a bridge across the vast canyon. The bridge will be made of ropes, and it will be built by flinging ropes across the span, tying them off on either side, and then attaching boards for people to walk across, piece by piece. Eventually, they think, they will be able to not only meet in the middle, but also travel back in forth.

There’s a problem, though. Because the bridge is made of rope, there’s some swaying involved when you step out onto it. While it would probably be best to just step out and start building, step after step after step, it never happens.

People are afraid.

And instead of walking toward each other, building as they go, they cling to their own side of the canyon, and return to their epithet-shouting ways. They know what they need, and they even have a rudimentary idea of how to do it. So they throw their ropes, and instead of catching them on the other side and tying them off, they simply let the ropes slide through their fingers.

So the bridge remains unbuilt, and a canyon that could be crossed is instead returned to the status of obstacle. Common ground is forgotten. Similarities are not mentioned.

And compromise is not even considered…

Certainly a crudely drawn metaphor, but you get the point, don’t you?

I’m no politician, and no great thinker.

But as someone on the outside, it seems to me this partisan-ship we’re so concerned with is slowly killing the country.

There will always be struggles–that is one thing we can all be certain of. But instead of facing the struggles with a united front, we are more concerned with making people afraid and telling the country who is to blame for their fears.

And I wonder whatever happened to the principles this country was founded upon.

You can remove words from pledges, and even stop saying the pledges altogether. You can tell children and adults what they can and cannot say in schools and places of business.

But that doesn’t change the fact that there were and are certain principles the men who breathed this country into life took to heart that are no longer given so much as lip service because the “powers that be” are more concerned with offending someone than saying what needs to be said, and in many cases doing what needs to be done.

And that saddens me, because I believe this country–that powerful country I spoke about earlier–really is the greatest country on earth.

And I think that compromise, politically or otherwise, does not have to be something that’s feared.

This bridge can be built, if we are willing to do the work.

Monochrome

I think I knew I needed glasses for a while before I actually got them.

I would sit on the couch and have to squint at the Tivo menu to read what programs were recorded. Another time, I had picked some friends off at the airport and after I dropped them off I realized I could not read the small green street signs to navigate my way out of their neighborhood. I think it took me about 90 minutes to get home, and it probably should have been 15 to 20. I finally found my way to I-5, and ended up getting back on down by the airport–after I drove through Barrio Logan with the doors locked.

The point being, I could not see for beans, and I knew it. But I resisted getting glasses because I’d had perfect vision my entire life, and it was not possible I no longer did. Besides, glasses were for old people.

And then I realized, I am old people.

So I went to see an eye doctor my friend recommended, and after I got my glasses, I could not believe how much easier things got. I could read the titles from the Tivo menu from across the street–never mind across the living room. I won’t even mention how awesome it was to see street signs without stopping and squinting. Not that it helped me much with getting lost–anyone who knows me can attest to that.

But the short version is that once I finally broke down and sought help, I could see again.

I could see.

I think that’s what it’s like when we finally let down our guards, and let go of our inhibitions and preconceived notions about God and just ask him for eyes to see.

Eyes to see.

I can remember when I finally did that. It just got so frustrating to always have to see things in black and white, based on a set of values that I had accrued over a life jam packed with all kinds of nonsense–most of it created by the lies I allowed myself to believe about God, and about myself, and about the people I was continually made to interact with.

Black and white.

You’d think it would be easier to see things that way–in convenient terms that I understood the definitions for. And in some respects, regarding some things, it is easier. Evil is still evil, and always will be. God is still good, all the time, and always will be.

I think it’s in looking at everything else that we become blind. We become too concerned with labels, and less with the people we’re attempting to fit into our little one-or-two-word definitions. And if they do not fit into the little boxes we’ve created like

Christian
Liberal
Conservative
Good
Evil

then we close our minds to them, and they are simply

WRONG.

And to me, one of the worst things about it is that we deem ourselves worthy enough to judge the worthiness of others in regard to anything.

That is not–and never has been–ours to do.

God judges.

And no one is worthy. All have fallen short of the only judge that matters (Romans 3:23).

Who am I to judge anyone else’s commitment to Jesus? Who am I to hold it up to mine, and find it lacking?

What makes me think I can judge anyone else’s patriotism, or commitment to their family, or that my methods for disciplining my children are better than theirs.

The plain truth is that the world and the things in it are bright, so bright, and they fall over our eyes and cloud our perspectives until we ask and ask and ask God to take them away.

So we can have eyes to see.

To see each other the way He intended us to. To look at His people–even if they don’t believe–and realize he died for them just as much as we who now believe. Maybe even more.

Because He came not for the well, but the sick.

He came to give His life as a ransom for many.

He came to give us eyes to see–to see the world like He does.

Through the eyes of His father.