Stream of Early Morning Consciousness

You are everything I will ever need
to complete everything you are asking of me
So I lay it all down for the sake of
Your name
Here I am, God, use me, set me aflame…

It’s so interesting the times God chooses to communicate something to a person. It’s 0440 and I want to be asleep. Lord knows I should be. Yet here I lie, thinking the above song lyric.

Why now, God?

What do I have to offer that you need, or can use? I can’t even manage to sleep…my mind keeps spitting out praise lyrics, like some demented late night Wurlitzer…

you are my all in all

And I wish I could praise you with my own words, but I keep coming back to the words of others, perhaps because my words are not enough

if I had no voice, if I had no tongue, I would dance for you like the rising sun

If I could say what I really meant I would say something to thank you for pulling me from the quicksand that was my life and making a man out of me.

I would thank you for coming to me in my weakness and not my strength, and for showing me it was ok to grieve and be broken.

I would thank you for holding my patchwork heart in your hands, and loving me even when I feel like a ****up. I would thank you for the beautiful and Godly woman who sleeps behind me as I thumb type this, who makes me want to be better.

If I had more words, better words, I’d thank you for showing me my gifts, and bringing me to this smallish town and bringing people like Ken, and Paul, and Jeff, and Zeb and Alan into my life–Godly men who love you and are helping me to pull something out of myself I didn’t know existed.

If I had the words, I would thank you for your Word, and your words, that bring life, that

wake me up inside

And here’s the other thing, maybe the last thing for now. Maybe there are people I know who will read this who do not believe. They might give a little sigh of exasperation because here I go again.

Well, so what.

I may not be the best writer or speaker or teacher or husband or whatever. But I am learning, all the time, and I am realizing that

we were meant to live for so much more

I know this and feel it in my heart. My words might not properly represent you at times before others, maybe even most times. But I know what you’ve done in my life, and nothing anyone says or believes about me can change that.

So I offer you my service, such as it is.

here I am God, use me

Advertisements

I Wonder

Let me begin by saying I am no pastor. I am not a theologian, or apologist of any particular skill. I am just a man who believes, and I am a member of a congregation. As such, I’ve began to wonder a few things about “the church” as a collective body, not just the place I worship a couple times a week.

I wonder if sometimes we forget why we enter those doors, or why they’re even there in the first place?

I wonder if sometimes we sit in judgment on the people who walk through those doors, as if the things that bother us about them matter at all to God?

I wonder if sometimes we think so much about who signs the most checks in the offering plate we forget about the people who have no checks to sign that are right outside our doors?

I wonder if giving people what they expect from church can sometimes supersede giving Jesus what he deserves?

I wonder if we can change–as people and the body–to actually reach the people in our own backyards who are so broken and so jaded and hurt by the world they have no idea who Jesus is?

I wonder if we can ever grasp that while Jesus is the way, truth, and life, the worship methodologies we’ve grown accustomed to are not necessarily the only ones that can bring the proper measure of praise to God?

I wonder if we will ever understand the vernacular of our youth in such a way that we can acknowledge they can actually say something to God with it?

I wonder if we will realize that our preferred level of spiritual reverence is not the only one that exists?

I wonder if we can truly learn to love the sometimes unloveable?

I wonder if we can ever really be the hands and feet of Jesus if we don’t stop trying to please people and start trying to please God?

I wonder if we can remember that in a sense, we are all leaders in our respective churches?

That’s the real trick, at least it is for me. I represent the church, and not just my own church. I represent Jesus before people who have never heard the truth about him. Like it or not, I am a leader in the church. And as Northpoint Pastor Andy Stanley said, as leaders “we are not responsible for filling anyone else’s cup, we are responsible for emptying ours…”

I think if we all just focus on emptying our cups in worship and praise we will be on our way toward living in the fullness of Christ.

I wonder what would happen if we did that?

This young man here is emptying his cup…

Beautiful Hands

This morning I decided to scrap the curriculum for my Sunday school class and just kind of freestyle. The last couple of classes had been kind of rough, participation-wise and I wanted to try and figure out if I was doing something wrong, and how I could make the class and the curriculum more applicable to the students and their lives.

Additionally, Friday’s events in Connecticut had me spun out a little as well. I’ve been having a bit of a hard time getting my mind around it, or past it, or through it. I wrote a little bit about that this morning and I also knew I wanted to talk to the kids about how they felt, too. I wanted to see how they were handling it, and if they wanted to talk. The young man who committed the crime was only a few years removed from high school himself, and was closer to their age than mine.

So we talked about being a teenager. We talked about how tough it was, and how tough it could be. We talked about whether or not the church was relevant to the lives of the kids (yes and no), and what we could do to make it different. One of the students shared a considerable amount in the class about her difficulties, and the hour ended up passing pretty quickly.

I don’t know what the result was for them, but I feel like I learned a little bit more about their lives than I’d know before and had some insight into being a teen in the 21st Century.

After my class, I went to the sanctuary to wait for Jen so we could catch the 11am service–I was excited about it because I knew Jeff was going to be preaching and I wanted to be there and see how he was doing. The worship songs got me thinking as worship songs do and by the time Jeff came on to preach I was in the frame of mind where I knew if anything emotional happened I was toast.

The first place Jeff went was to talk about the shooting, and he reminded us to remember the victims, and to focus on them, rather than spending so much time finding out about the perpetrator. He talked a little bit about the heroism of the teachers and staff that morning, and finished with a prayer. By the end of it, I was teary and sat with my head down even after the prayer was finished.

I just wanted to go lie down somewhere. I had my arm across the back of Jen’s chair and I absently stroked her shoulder with the fingers of my left hand. I remember thinking I needed…something from God or I was going to have to get up and leave.

Just then I felt the soft touch of little fingers on my forearm and turned to see a beautiful little girl with Down syndrome that was maybe two. She wore a nice little Sunday dress, and her hair was fixed and very pretty. She didn’t say anything, but just stood there for a second and smiled the most beautiful smile I’d ever seen.

“Hi, sweetheart,” I said, just as her father hustled her back to their seats.

He said she noticed my arms were as hairy as his. That was certainly true, but I think it was a lot more than that, at least for me.

I told him that afterward, and I’m not sure whether he got it or not, because he looked at me kind of funny. Regardless, it made me very aware that God will speak to us when we ask him to, sometimes in ways we don’t expect.

I felt his touch in that little girl’s fingertips when I needed it badly.

What a morning…

Back on the Couch

It has taken me several days to process Friday’s events in Connecticut enough to get to a place in my head and my heart where I could write about it. I was in The Big Swirl frozen yogurt shop with John when I saw something on Twitter about a shooting.

Just then John tried to go behind the counter so we took off and headed over to GameStop to look for some Xbox accessories for David. John decided that would be a great place for a power dump, and it wasn’t until after I changed him that I sat in my car and read the story in full.

The magnitude of the tragedy was simply breathtaking, and I struggled to get my mind around it. What could have happened in this young, young man’s head that he could murder a class full of first graders?

In my mind I saw their faces as he came through the door, probably looking up in curiosity. As a parent my mind immediately went to my own third grade son sitting in his classroom, and two the toddler I’d just buckled into his car seat.

I wanted to be angry at the boy (because that’s really what he was) who had done this evil (because that’s it was), and I even expected to be mad at God for allowing it to happen but all I could feel to this very cold Sunday morning is a sadness so profound it coils in my guts like sickness. I think CS Lewis had it right when he said “no one ever told me grief felt so much like fear…”

I feel a grief of a level I haven’t felt since I was a teenager when I lost my parents and a good friend in my 16th, 17th, and 18th years. I didn’t know how to grieve that loss, and I don’t know how to grieve this one.

Clearly I didn’t know any of those children, but I grieve for them just the same. I grieve for their families. I grieve for what could have been. I grieve for the loss of so much innocence all at once.

I grieve for the teachers and faculty who died trying (some successfully and some not) to protect their students. I grieve for their families.

I grieve for the family of the murderer as well. The love they felt for the killer is no different than what the parents of the murdered children feel. Plus, this young man’s father has to live with what his son did and wonder where he fell short for the rest of his life.

I grieve for the country I love as well, because I feel this tragedy will not pull us together but further apart. It will be gun control vs gun owners and it will not stop.

I grieve because I know something like this will happen again.

I don’t blame the gun, or the killer’s mother for owning the ones used that morning. I don’t blame God or anyone else. God didn’t pull the trigger so many times Friday; a man did. I’m not going to get into the gun control debate today and maybe not at all, but I will say this (and I grieve the loss of my own innocence as well):

I own a gun. I bought it to shoot at targets. I have no plans to shoot any living thing.

But I would put a hundred bullets into the young man who did this thing to protect even a single child and I would be able to live with myself.

I read an excellent post by Morgan Freeman (find it on the Internet) which apportioned blame to media influenced sensationalism and I think that’s true, but not the only truth.

I think we’re failing our kids on a regular basis. So many have lost the idea that life is precious, and what binds us to it is little more than gossamer thread. Violence and violent imagery is ubiquitous. We expose our kids to it and we expose ourselves to it. It makes me despair for people. It makes me think there’s nothing to be done for the world. It makes me think there’s nothing anyone can do, the world is speeding to a sad and inevitable end.

It makes me think there is no hope.

There is hope, and that hope came to earth two millennia ago in a humble and quiet manner.

The hope for humanity is in the form of an obscure Nazarene carpenter who wore humanity for 33 years before dying for it. Our hope is not in a victory that can be achieved by strength of arms, though it is by blood.

We can’t change the hearts of our children, but we can tell them about who can. We can teach them to love like Jesus did. We can teach them every single life means something. We can teach them of the quiet heroism of school teachers and janitors.

I think if we just pour love into our kids then maybe we have a chance against this sort of thing.

Back to this morning. John woke up at 0600, and I brought him out to the couch. I skimmed through Twitter and Facebook, reading news stories about the shooting and people’s status updates about their lives, which carried on. Mine will, too.

Then I saw a picture, and it just wrecked me. It was a painting, really, on a post that was a poem with the rhyme structure and meter of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.’

In the painting, Jesus sat in a classroom surrounded by children, and a teacher was reading to her students from a children’s book.

There will be more pictures in the days to come. Many words will be spoken and written, and not all of them will be loving.

I think the thing to remember is that everyone grieves differently, and we should allow them that. Some will cry, some will pray, some will be angry. Some will curse God or call for the weapons of all gun owners.

We need to let people process their grief in their own way, and then we can move on.

We need to talk about a lot of things.

20121216-074925.jpg

The Third Man

They strapped the cross to his arms with two pieces of roughly woven rope, and cut off the extra with their knives. The shorter piece of wood rested across his thin shoulders, and was pegged into a deep groove in the longer piece, which would have rested along his back if it had been a couple of feet shorter. As it was, the wood left a gouge in the dirt behind him as he walked.

It was heavy, Dismas thought; perhaps half a man’s weight, maybe a little less. The Romans used good wood.

A man he didn’t know balanced a slightly larger piece of wood across his torn and bloody shoulders as he walked (though it was really a little more like a controlled stagger), and his former “partner,” Gesmas, directly behind.

The thought that it was Friday occurred to him, along with the knowledge that on the morrow, the roads into and out of Jerusalem would be choked with people again. There would be much opportunity to procure coin, and then wine. This was followed by the thought he’d robbed his last traveler, and that his small curved knife had been taken by the Romans at his capture. He was helpless as a baby.

Dismas glanced at the jeering crowd gathered around the three of them and after a moment realized their taunts and cries were not directed at either him or Gesmas; they were focused on the third man. There were so many of them, and as they began their final walk, the crowd followed along.

He didn’t want to think about the hill that waited at the end of the rocky trail, and that soon enough he would be hanging from the rough wood now bouncing against his shoulders, with crows pecking at his rotting corpse.

He walked, and his feet kicked up little clouds of dust. The straight portion of the cross dragged heavily behind him.

The soldiers mostly left he and Gesmas alone as they walked, but seemed very intent on making the walk of the third man especially brutal. They began striking him with short leather whips right outside the gate and continued every ten or fifteen steps. The man’s dingy robe was bloody from it.

Gesmas swore at the soldiers, swore at the third man, swore at the crowd. Sweat dripped from his brow and made dark spots in the dirt at his feet as he walked. Only one soldier even spared him a glance—more of a glare, really. He pointed his sword at Gesmas and said “Silence…”

Dismas thought about joining in the swearing. The thought of a quick death from a Roman sword did have its allure. He’d seen people hanging from crosses, of course. They died hard, unless the Romans broke their legs to speed things up. You couldn’t breathe as well if you couldn’t push yourself up on the nails. He’d heard it was like drowning.

He hoped they’d break his legs.

Gesmas just hung his head and kept walking, and Dismas did the same. You never cut off any part of your life—not even a second—if you had the choice.

The Romans continued to taunt the third man, and the rhythmic “thwack” sound of their whips striking his bloody back strangely took Dismas’s mind from his coming fate. The crowd walked with them, jeering—though he would sometimes hear a few cries of “Let him go” interspersed with the cries for the man’s death. And there was a large group of women amongst the crowd, who wept openly and reached out their hands toward the third man.

He wondered what the man had done to bring such violence on himself. It was like many of the people hated him. Dismas had heard of a man teaching throughout the region and beyond, a man called Jesus, but that man seemed revered—loved, even. Could this be the same person? He’d never heard one of the man’s talks, and had not set foot in the temple or made a sacrifice in quite some time.

Yet there was something about this man. He didn’t carry himself like other people. Dismas had yet to hear him speak so much as a word, but here he was. His robe was torn in the back from the whips, and something was twisted around his head and blood was running down his face.

The third man turned and looked toward the weeping women, and Dismas heard him speak at last.

“Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children—“ His next words were drowned out by a chorus of cries from the part of the crowd that seemed glad to see him there, and Dismas suddenly wanted to hear more of what this man had to say.

He didn’t have the chance. Dismas saw the man slowly fall forward onto his face, and his cross slid forward onto the ground.

Do not weep for me, Dismas thought.

It had to be Jesus, this man wounded, and hurt, and covered with blood, and mud, and the spit of his guards.
He and Gesmas stopped and watched. The third man just lay there, and Dismas could see him spit blood onto the ground. Two of the soldiers sliced off the ropes binding the man to the cross and flipped it over onto the ground next to the man. They grabbed a another man who looked like a merchant out of the crowd, and lifted the third man’s cross from the ground and onto the merchant’s shoulders.

Two of the soldiers grabbed the man on the ground by the back of his robe and lifted him from the dirt. Dismas could hear the garment begin to tear, but the man still stood, wavering for a minute. The two soldiers mocked him, and joked among themselves and with the crowd about the third man’s seeming inability to stand without weaving. They pushed him back and forth between them, spitting vile profanities at him, stopping every now and then to slap him across the face or hit him with their fists.

He stood there swaying slightly, saying nothing and just absorbing their blows.

After a few more moments of their fun, the two soldiers with the third man and the rest of the squad got the procession moving again, onward toward the Skull.

Dismas followed at the rear, and watched the third man lead the column, with the merchant next, then the two soldiers with the whips, Gesmas, more soldiers, and then himself. They never touched Gesmas or him, but they continually harassed the third man, continued to beat and whip him, and when he would fall, they would kick him until he was able to struggle to his feet.

Dismas wondered for the first time what the man’s name was. Who was this man that took every blow with little more than a groan? Who was he that he could do that? He never begged them to stop, never pleaded for his life. He just walked calmly forward. He had seen a display of lambs in the temple court once waiting to be purchased for sacrifice, and this reminded him oddly of that.

At last, just as the sun was reaching its zenith, they reached the top of the hill. Dismas stood panting, his legs on fire from the climb, with the bottom of his cross resting on the ground. Gesmas stood there glaring at the soldiers and the crowd, looking like a trapped animal.

The soldiers jerked the cross from the shoulders of the merchant, and let it fall backward onto the ground. They pushed him away and he disappeared over the edge of the hill and back toward the city. The third man started to fall forward, but his two guards caught him under his arms, and then ripped his garment down the center, leaving him in his underclothing. They let him go and he fell forward onto his face.

The two guards assigned to Dismas turned his cross onto the ground, and then ripped his robe apart as well. Dismas stood in his undergarment, and then one of the soldiers barked at him “Lie down on the cross. Now!”

Dismas did as they asked, and felt the rough wood dig into his back. Absurdly, he thought of splinters. As they stretched out his arms along the crossbar, he could hear the guards of the third man call out to him mockingly, and Dismas heard a final blow land somewhere on the third man’s body.

“Now, your majesty. Can you not free yourself? Command us to let you go, then…”

That was it, Dismas thought. The third man was certainly no thief, no murderer. He didn’t behave like anyone Dismas had ever met before. He just faced his death with absolute calm. There was just something about him that was different. Dismas had seen Herod one time from a distance, and he almost walked through people. Not just like he didn’t see them, but like they were not worthy of being seen. He just…strode.

The third man was not like that, not arrogant in the least, but was somehow regal all the same. Not like a lamb so much after all, Dismas thought. Then they laid the third man down on his own cross, and he spoke again. His voice was full of pain, but rang out like a bell in the still air on top of the Skull.

“Abba,” the third man said, “…father…forgive them, forgive them…they don’t know what they’re doing…they don’t know…”

His voice trailed off, and Dismas realized the man was praying, praying for the men about to hammer nails through his wrists and feet.

Just then Dismas felt the point of the first nail enter his wrist at an angle right through the center of the bundle of nerves at the heel of his palm. He could feel every strike of the mallet through his entire body. He hardly had time to stop screaming from the first nail before the second was hammered home. He didn’t feel the nail that went through both of his ankles and the cross.

And then it was done.

The soldiers looped ropes around the side of his cross and then raised Dismas up on the far right, sliding the base of his cross into a hole in the ground. They raised the third man up in the center, with Gesmas on the left. Gesmas was screaming profanities at the soldiers, at the crowd, and from what Dismas could tell, God as well.

The third man hung on his cross with his head down, and Dismas could see his chest rising and falling, rising and falling. A crowd began to gather in front of him, a weeping woman at the center, with a handsome young man standing next to her. An older man, one of the temple priests, pushed himself forward through the crowd, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One.”

The third man’s two guards came forward next. One of them pushed a piece of sponge onto the head of his spear and then sunk the spear into a nearby bucket. He held the dripping weapon up to the third man as he hung there but the man just shook his head. The second soldier lifted a sign on his spear and hung it over a nail protruding from the top of the third man’s cross. He cleared his throat and read aloud “Here is the king of the Jews.”

He chuckled and slapped his partner on his armored shoulder. “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself,” said the soldier in a voice dripping with sarcasm.

Gesmas inclined his head over to the right and screamed at the third man, “Aren’t you the messiah? Save yourself, then. Save us!”

Dismas looked at the man on the middle cross. His head hung low, and blood ran down his cheeks into his beard. His chest and ribs were bruised and striped from the whips. One leg was positioned on either side of the cross with a long nail driven through his left ankle, through the wood, and out the other ankle, where one of his guards had bent the end over so the third man’s foot couldn’t slip off. He struggled for breath.

And then truth rushed through Dismas’s mind like a cold river—this man, the third man, was king, and the promised messiah. He knew it with absolutely certainty, and at that moment, awareness of his sin came crashing into him and through him. He saw the first purse he grabbed. He saw all the men he’d killed—saw their faces flash before him, and he knew that he could not go into the darkness of death with the weight of that sin coiled around his heart.

He somehow knew the third man—this Jesus—could take it away. He knew he could carry the weight for him, into His father’s kingdom. He leaned his head forward as far as he could, and turned toward Gesmas.

“Don’t you fear God?” he shouted. “You’re under the same sentence as him. So am I. We’re getting the reward our deeds demand.”

Dismas inclined his head toward Jesus. “This man has done nothing!!”

Gesmas fell silent.

Dismas saw Jesus turn his head toward him and turned his head as far as he could to the left so he could look into his eyes. They were filled with kindness, and tears for the people that Dismas knew he longed to save. He lowered his head.

“Jesus…”

He could feel Jesus looking at him, and he raised his head again. Everything else disappeared—Gesmas, the crowd, his cross. There was only Jesus, his brown eyes filling, and looking at Dismas clearly in spite of his own pain.

“Jesus,” he pleaded, “remember me…remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

“Amen, I tell you,” said Jesus. He smiled at Dismas and his smile was beautiful, even with blood running down his face. “Today you will be with me in paradise…”

A feeling of peace ran through him, and he looked up at the sky. The pain was distant, and it occurred to him that the end was very near. Clouds gathered over the Skull, blowing back toward the city. He looked down at the crowd and two soldiers were coming toward him with mallets.

He didn’t feel it when they broke his legs.

Finding Our Night-Night Place

Here I am again on the couch. John woke up at 430, exactly when I did–maybe he heard my alarm. I get up that early so I have time to have breakfast, and throw lunch together or take a shower. More importantly, that’s my morning devo time.

Well, trying to get a semi-fussy toddler back to sleep precludes all but the last of those things. And so it was that I ended up in my spot with a baby on my shoulder, and talking to God.

I spoke softly, but I did pray aloud, and it wasn’t until he heard the sound of my voice that John stopped squirming and started going back to sleep.

I think we do that, too. Sometimes life makes us squirm–life, in all its messiness with all its pitfalls and all its pain.

We get so caught up in whatever is going on it’s hard to calm down. This morning John needed a few things to calm him down and get him back to his “night-night” place. Sometimes we need that, too.

I think most of all, it was the sound of a calming voice (I prayed over him and sang softly into his ear) and the feeling of comfort that comes from feeling daddy’s arms.

That’s what we need, too, sometimes. We need to hear daddy’s voice and feel his love.

I think that looks and feels a little different for everyone. With some people, that love manifests through reading scripture. For others, it comes from hearing his voice through song, or from the gentle breeze of his voice through prayer, or maybe some other way.

It’s different for everyone.

The world and our troubles can fall away when we allow ourselves to hear from our abba, however he speaks to us.

So amazing when that happens. This morning, it happened for John, and for me through a fussy baby. The night before, I got to carry David back to his bed (won’t be able to do that much longer!). Anyway, I won’t get back to my night-night place until after practice tonight, unfortunately.

My Alabaster Jar

I woke up this morning (way too early, thanks to John), and I was still thinking about church last night. Specifically, the music. Perhaps it was that in conjunction with a video I watched earlier in the day:

(Zeb posted this a month or so ago. It inspired me then and inspires me now)

I watched that again yesterday afternoon while Jen was getting her toes did, and I was still thinking about it when we got to church and Jorge sang this song during communion:

I started thinking about truly dedicating my life to something, and what that actually meant.

here I am, take me…

When I got married, I dedicated the rest of my life to being with my wife in all circumstances, forsaking all others. I think it is very much like that when you offer yourself and your service (such as it may be) to Jesus.

I suppose that’s why the church is often referred to as “the bride of Christ.”

I tell myself that my natural affinities would not be useful to Jesus, and that he would never be able to use me for anything of consequence. This morning I realized Jesus doesn’t much care for our natural affinities. If we ask him to use us, he will.

A single lyric from this song popped into my head when that last sentence ran through my mind:

here I am, God, use me, set me aflame

I don’t have much to offer. I don’t have anything of worth. I’m no preacher, no evangelist. I’m getting a little long in the tooth, and lots of things hurt in the morning.

But I don’t want to waste another second of my life taking salvation for granted and serving my own ends first.

here I am, take me…