Depths of my heart

Sometimes, when I look into my heart, I see darkness.

Even today, knowing Christ, that is what I see. It’s true that I’m a new creation, but it doesn’t take much for me to fall into old thought patterns, belief patterns, and even sin patterns.

Because, at the innermost depths of my heart, I am not a good person. At least, that’s what I hear whispered in my ear every now and then. Seems mostly like when I think things are going pretty well.

But is that really true?

Am I a bad person?

What does God say about that? I know that when I made my decision for Christ I “put off the old man.” And was made a “new creation.” And even before that, I believed that God made me. Didn’t I? And isn’t it true?

So if God made me, and if I am a new creation, then if I think I am a bad person, isn’t that like saying God made me bad? And does God make bad people?

I think that maybe God makes people good, and for whatever their reasons are, people make bad decisions about their lives–I know I did, for a very long time.

So that being said, and with the knowledge that I’ve “put off the old man,” why is it so easy to remember the old man, the one with the heart of stone?

The one with darkness and ugliness at his depths.

Hard question to answer, but I think basically, because it’s hard to totally surrender to God. It’s easy to remember the old me–and to feel like him.

But

because I know Jesus is there, there really isn’t any darkness. In Him there is no darkness at all.

I am in Him.

And there is no darkness–even if it feels that way every once in a while.

I think of the Chris Tomlin song “Indescribable,” and the lyric that sums up Christ’s love for us, his beloved Children.

For me.

“You see the depths of my heart, and you love me the same.”

He loves us the same, even if when we look at ourselves we see darkness. He loves us the same, even if when we look at ourselves, we see ugliness.

He loves us the same.

Praise God, from whom all blessings flow.

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Identity Crisis

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.

And here’s another question. What if you can’t be the person you think you are? What if something is holding you back, whether it be work, or inhibition, or simply life in all its complicated madness?

What then?

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? And who do we think we are?

I think much of our self-identification stems from our natural affinities, our giftings, or our jobs. I’m a carpenter, or a cook, or a plumber, or a writer, or a singer. And 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? Where we spend 8+ hours of our time every day?

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.

How can that be all there is?

Is that who I am? My name is Tom, and I’m an Engineering Technician EG2B, brother four times, and husband of Jennifer, father of David and John.

Something is lost here.

Who am I?

What is my primary identity? Do I even have one?

Is it any of those things I just mentioned? If it is, I think we’re 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 EG2B, 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 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 lately, the struggle has been one of time. I know who I am, and I think I know who I’m supposed to be.

But there’s no time.

There’s work, and church, and kids, and not much time for anything else. Right? Life gets so busy.

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 just have to make time to do it. I have to dig deeply into the time I do have, and I have to set my priorities.

If I want to be the example to my kids and my wife I know I should be, I have to take care of some things before I can take care of them. I need to put on my armor every day. And study, and pray, and seek wisdom.

Only then can I be the father, and husband, and friend that God has in mind for me to be.

Because like it or not, my kids will look to me to see who they should be. And I don’t want them to see simply Tom.

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 until now.

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? And if you feel lost, or set apart from who you feel you are supposed to be, what will you do to find that person again?

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, he thought darkly. A man he didn’t know received the same treatment just in front of him, and his former “partner,” Gesmas, directly behind.

The thought that it was Friday occurred to him. There would be many travelers on the roads to and from Jerusalem; much opportunity to procure coin, and then wine.

He 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.

Dismas tried not to think about the hill that waited at the end of their walk. He tried not to think that soon enough he would be hanging from the rough wood now bouncing against his shoulders, and crows would be pecking at his eyes.

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 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 in quite some time. But 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, but 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 flopped it over onto the ground next to the man. They grabbed a man that 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.

Still he stood there, saying nothing, 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 as well. 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. Dismas had seen a line of lambs walking to the slaughter once, 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, Dismas thought. And 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.

Praying.

Dismas felt the point of the first nail enter his wrist at an angle right in 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 raised Dismas up on the far right, and slid the base of his cross into a hole in the ground. They raised the third man up in the center, and 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, 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.

And he knew the third man—he knew 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. So am I. And we’re getting the reward our deeds demand.”

Dismas looked 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. “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. Thin clouds blew over the Skull, 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.

This law is raising some interesting questions

I’ve spent a fair amount of time lately reading lots of outcries from people regarding our new AZ immigration law. I can understand that people don’t want to be “profiled,” but I’m wondering what the answer to the immigration problem is if this law isn’t?

Could law enforcement use the law as the catalyst for racial profiling? Of course they could. But I think it’s also true people can be racially profiled without it. People of all colors. White people, too, if they look a certain way, or maybe drive a certain type of car in a certain type of neighborhood (though I suppose that would be more “societal” profiling).

I heard a latino gentleman on the radio yesterday (he was from Mexico) talking to the host of the show (I forget his name), who asked him what was the policy regarding illegal immigration in Mexico. The caller said “zero tolerance,” and if someone is caught illegally, they’re immediately sent home.
I think what could potentially cause problems with this law is that it leaves things up to individuals. And people are people. Are there racist or poorly trained law enforcement officers in Arizona who may choose to…use this law in a way other than it was intended? Could be.

But I think it’s unfair of people to assume that every cop in Arizona is going to start pulling people over for being brown. I also think, though, there will have to be some serious, serious training involved, from the bottom to top. This is a tough new law, and it has the potential to either work, or crash and burn epically. I’m hoping the former. But I guess we’ll see.

And while I understand that people might be afraid they’re going to start becoming targets for law enforcement because they’re brown, or yellow, or pink, and law enforcement assumes they’re illegal, I think these same people should also not make the assumption that Arizona law enforcement will automatically be cruising for people to arrest. I don’t think it’s fair to assume that all cops are bad because some of them COULD be, given the opportunity. Do we not trust the police anymore because a law was signed by the governor?

Make no mistake, this is groundbreaking legislation. And it’s up to all of us how it works.

And like I mentioned earlier, if not this legislation, then what? What are we to do about borders, and about immigration? I’m from San Diego, and we have a wall there that doesn’t work very well. People laugh at it, and rightly so.

What’s the answer? Tougher laws? Easier laws? No laws? I don’t know.

Bring us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

I submit that it’s possible to do that without coming across the border in a boat in the dead of night, or swimming across a river, or cramming into the back of a van with lots of other people.

I work as a DoD contractor, and I meet a lot of interesting people. I was on a test once where I met a soldier from Poland, who was now a combat engineer for the United States Army. He’d done two tours in Iraq, and was now training for a third tour—this time in Afghanistan. He was going to take an energetic young black lab named Bear to go sniff out mines and IEDs. Anyway, this young man had come to the states to attend college, and had liked it so much he stayed illegally after he was done with college. But he fell in love with the country, and wanted to serve, so he eventually went home to Poland, and did what he had to so he could come here legally. And he joined the Army, where today he is probably in the mountains of Afghanistan, protecting my way of life.

Anyway, I don’t like that we have this type of legislation—that it’s necessary to secure our borders, if indeed they can be secured.

But what’s the alternative? No borders at all?

We don’t live in the type of world where we can hold hands across our borders and sing happy songs, congratulating each other on what great and tolerant people we are.

So what do we do?

The Slam

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.

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.

For the beautiful.

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 as well?

It’s just so hard to see sometimes….

Revolution Project

This weekend Jenny and her parents and I are doing a chapel service at Crossroads Mission–as a smaller part of a larger outreach that FCC is doing. Jenny, Ken and Linda will be doing a few worship songs, and I’ll be doing a little bit of speaking. We’ll have volunteers serving at the mission all day, from morning to night. Cleaning, serving food, serving people. Also, we’ll be having a BBQ/picnic thing at Ranchsomething Elementary school, and serving the surrounding community a free lunch, with some fun things for the kids to do as well. Lastly, we’ll be doing some work for Amberly’s place, which is a battered and abused women’s shelter. Below is a narrative representation of what I’ll be speaking about. Pray it goes well!

I realized something when I was getting prepared for this. It was ten years ago this month that I began my relationship with Jesus, after a lifetime of struggling and wrestling with doubt, and despair, and addiction to all sorts of things. It wasn’t something I had in mind, but God knew better than I what the perfect timing was, and that’s when things started—March of 2000. I was on a trip to Padres spring training in Peoria, and what happened was that, as CS Lewis says, “I gave in and admitted that God was God.” And I asked Him to come to my rescue, because He was the only one that could.

First, a little about me.

I’m from San Diego, my name is Tom, and I’m an addict (hi, Tom!). I wasn’t born that way—it seems to me that addicts come in pieces, and it takes a lifetime to put them together—like one of those horrible pieces of furniture from IKEA. I had a great deal of trauma in my childhood, from abuse, to neglect, to a two year period where three people close to me died in quick succession. My addictions began as comfort, and morphed into self-medication. And as with most people with addictive personalities, if it wasn’t one thing, it most definitely was another. By the time I was an adult, I would do almost anything to meet my needs, or what I thought my needs were at the time.

My addictions were many. Early on, I became addicted to food, and I obviously am still fighting that battle today. And for a while—both before the internet and after—I developed a problem with lust, and pornography. The former led me to the latter, and the latter ended up giving me a completely distorted outlook on women, sex, and relationships. I thank God every day for that particular deliverance.

Then I became a binge alcoholic, and I was good at it. Alcohol was great—it was cheap, it was easy to get, and when I indulged, I could forget about the person I was and become someone else. This was especially great, because the person I was sucked—I knew it, and God had to know it, too.

Addiction was not my only sin, though. Not even close. I worked at a couple of restaurants when I was younger, and I stole both food and money from my employers on several occasions. My rationale was simple: life had been hard, and gotten harder. I deserved it. I was hungry, or I needed gas, or some thing, and I would do what was necessary to get it.

I was also clever, and I used that cleverness given me by God to make fun of all sorts of people—handicapped, overweight, skinny, mentally challenged. Whoever they were, they fell victim to my mean-spirited sense of humor—for my amusement, the amusement of others, and to make myself more popular. I was good at that, too. I was the funny guy that everyone liked, but at night I would go home miserable and alone.

Most of the time, that is. However, when opportunity presented itself, I indulged in several physical relationships with women I had no intention of marrying. It made me feel better at the time, but afterward I felt incredibly empty, and still ended up alone when it was all done.

All of these things were my feeble attempts to fill the voids in my life—to dull pain that I hated to even admit that I felt. To try and find just a little solace. None of them worked for much longer than a brief period, and left me feeling tired, and lonely, and drained afterward.

Eventually, I got to a place where I knew I needed God, or needed something, or I was going to die. Maybe not right away, and maybe not even soon, but the life I was leading was no kind of life at all, and dead was still dead. I’d have a heart attack, or choke on my vomit when I was drunk, or who even knew what.

I knew I needed God, but I had the idea that I could not approach him as I was. I was too dirty, too sullied by the world, too covered in the sin I had chosen to commit to approach God for anything. I was too filthy to be in His presence. This made sense to me because of all the “church people” I had known. It seemed like they had it all together. They wore nice clothes, and lived in nice houses, and they didn’t have any problems that I could see. They talked to Jesus all the time, and they were always happy. At least, that’s what it seemed like.

I wasn’t like that, and it seemed that not only would “church people” not accept me, but neither would Jesus. He couldn’t. I wasn’t one of His people. How could I ever enter his presence the way I was?

Matthew 11: 28-30 says:
28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

The following is part of a longer piece written by Jon Acuff as how he imagined Jesus speaking the truth about the above scripture into his heart:

I am not asking you to complete yourself and then come to me. I am asking you to come to me. Broken and burdened, infested with the most hideous lies about me and my nature. Covered in perpetual sin that you just can’t seem to shake. Because I don’t see that. I see Christ. I see the blood of my son all over you.

His love for us is so powerful, that he allowed His son to pay the price for a debt we owed. Jesus does not simply forgive our sins, he became sin on our behalf, so that we did not have to pay the penalty we so richly deserve. He loves us so much that He wants us to come into his presence exactly as we are, and not as we should be. He longs for us to come and stand in his presence and be loved as children.

Acuff continues:

Come stand in it filthy and let me cleanse you. Come stand in it broken and let me heal you.
Come stand in it drunk on doubt and fear and let me renew a spirit of confidence and trust in you.
Just come stand in it.
Come stand in it covered with lies and misconceptions about who I am and who you are and let me reveal the truth.

And the truth is this:

Romans 8: 38-39 says: For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

We cannot be separated from God’s love—and all we need do to receive this love is ask for it, and accept it when it comes. That’s actually a really hard thing to do—at least it was for me. It’s hard to get out of our heads that we really don’t deserve grace, and salvation, and life. It’s hard to accept love when all we deserve is condemnation. But love is exactly what we get when we come to Jesus, and surrender our will for our lives to His.

John 6:37 says: “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away.”

Whoever comes to me I will never drive away. That sounds pretty good to me—especially after a lifetime of feeling like I deserved nothing more than to be driven out. And really, I do deserve to be exiled from the presence of God. We all do.

But because of Jesus, because He died on my behalf—on our behalves—and because our names are written in His book, it doesn’t have to be that way. Because of Jesus, we have hope in our lives, and that makes all the difference in the world.

Despair is a powerfully heavy thing to carry, especially by yourself. Hope lightens the load. And hope is available to everyone.

Jeremiah 29:11-13 says “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. 12 Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.”

He’ll listen to our prayers—He does listen to our prayers. But we have to seek Him. And the thought of hope and a future when it seemed all was lost—incredible. That’s such an amazing gift, and it’s free.

Life has been good to me over the past ten years—it really has. I remember standing and looking over the river the night I met Jesus—one minute I was holding a couple of coolers and looking forward to a baseball game the next day. The next minute, I just literally fell to my knees and admitted my life was not working as it was. I needed help. I needed a savior.

It did start off slow, though, and I had to continually remind myself that God was in control, and His timing was always perfect. And there are still struggles, even this week. Some battles are fought over and over again, and I don’t always win them. I heard it said once that without the valleys in life, we wouldn’t be able to appreciate the peaks as much. I think that’s so true. And though I give God the glory for every victory in my life, I also now know that He is with me in every defeat, as well. And He waits with me for the next battle.

There was a movie a while back with Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer called “Frankie & Johnny,” and in one of the final scenes, Johnny (Al Pacino’s character) is consoling Frankie, and he says “I can’t make the bad go away. But when it comes again, I’ll be there.”

So when I struggle (not if, but when), or when there’s trouble, I try to always remind myself that Jesus might not take it away, and might not deliver me from it. But He will see me through it. And when it comes, He’ll be there.

Why pray at all?

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 we will hopefully soon be beginning a prayer ministry at FCC—an intercessory prayer ministry. I’m excited about it, and excited to be part of it. But I’ve been wondering.

What will it be like? Will other people want to do it, too? What, exactly, will we pray about? When the time comes, will God give me and others the right words? I don’t want to be a Pharisee, standing on the corner and praying at the top of my lungs so everyone can see how Holy I am. I have a lot of questions, and am looking forward to finding out the answers. But the main thing I wonder about is how, personally, will I do at it? I also ask myself if I even know how to pray effectively. Am I fit for such leadership? And what will the others involved in the ministry think of my involvement?

I realize that much of this is 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 my eloquence or lack of eloquence at prayer, 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 comes. I worry about sounding like a tool when I do finally open my mouth.

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; 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.

Take 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 pictures 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.