Another Link in the Chain

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0000chains….and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. (1 Timothy 1: 14-15 NRSV)

These words are the words of the apostle Paul, whose writings probably developed the concept of Salvation by grace more than anyone since. Here’s a little background on Paul if you’re not familiar with him, and a good reminder if you are. In the verses above Paul mentions that he is the foremost of sinners, and he’s not kidding.

In the earliest days of the church after Pentecost, nobody set out to rid the world of this new faith like Paul (who at that time was known as Saul). Now most of the Jewish religious elite weren’t thrilled about the new faith in Jesus, but Saul went after them with a particular zeal. Part of the book of Acts details his work. He was responsible for the imprisonment and torture of many Christians. He was also present at, and supervised, the execution of Stephen, the first Christian martyr (Acts 7:58–8:4).

Then something happened to Saul. On the way to Damascus to hunt down some Christians, he encountered the Risen Jesus. It was so startling that it literally knocked him off his donkey. This encounter changed his entire life and identity. He took the name Paul and spent the rest of his life talking about the grace of the Christ, whose grace was strong enough to redeem even him.

Think about that for a minute. All of the things that Paul had been through in his life, all the horrible things he had done were crucial to him being able to comprehend the depth and power of God’s grace. Those things made him appreciate that grace all the more, and appreciate the fact that there was no way for him to earn it. No deed or work would ever be good enough. Grace comes totally without merit to people who don’t deserve it on merit.

I’ve found that the same is true in my life. Lately I’ve been thinking about my shortcomings and failures as a chain. This is a big, heavy, dominating chain that I have built for myself. I feel that I every time I fail, everything time I screw up, I fashion another link in the chain that I haul around. It’s a very similar idea to Jacob Marley’s chain in “A Christmas Carol.”

And that chain is huge. Trust me, I’ve done a pretty complete job of screwing up my life. I’ve written about this before, but when I think about it…..

My original intention coming out of high school was to be a lawyer. I screwed that up. That’s one new link in the chain.

After that, I intended to be pastor, but my own ego got in my way. I took things personally that I shouldn’t have. Another new link.

I made a dumb decision to marry a young lady, a relationship that neither of us were ready for in any way, shape, or form. We’re both still dealing with the consequences of that. That’s a HUGE link in the chain.

I became so angry at my own failures wrought by my own egotistical personality and poor decision making that I rejected my church, my faith, my friends, my family, and ultimately even God. That accounts for several new links actually.

My anger enveloped me so much that I became a toxic person. Nobody wanted to be around me at home or at work. Add on a couple of more links.

Eventually I let someone whom I cared about very deeply walk out of my life without ever telling this individual how much they meant to me. That has been absolutely soul crushing to deal with.

But something happened in the midst of all of this. I encountered Jesus in a whole new way. I had always known him in my head, but I finally came to know him in my heart. When my soul and spirit were in the worst shape, when I was at my lowest low, when I had been totally and completely defeated, when my chain was so big and so heavy…..

I encountered the grace of the Living God.

And that God, this Jesus, removed that chain from me effortlessly. If you’ve never felt that, I don’t how to describe it. Perhaps it’s like that feeling you get when you tell someone your deepest and darkest secret, and you feel the relief of finally not carrying that burden.

The weight is off. My chains are gone.

That doesn’t mean life is easy though. Sometimes I like to try and build that chain again. I still think about those things I mentioned above from time to time. I’m still dealing with the consequences of a couple of them. When that happens, sometimes I feel guilty and start forging that chain again, fully intending to make it bigger and heavier than last time.

But the difference is that now I know Jesus is there. I know he will take those chains and break them once again, gently calling me back to him, to abide in him. His ability to break chains came at a price, it is not free. You realize that when you see the scars on his hands, feet, and side.

But isn’t that amazing that he went through that for me, and for you? Isn’t it amazing how know matter how much I screw up, he’ll always be there for me? Isn’t it amazing that no matter what wrong I do that he will forgive me? Isn’t it amazing that as good as I try to be, there’s no way to earn his grace?

His grace just is.

His grace is free.

His grace is indeed amazing, and my chains are gone!

Seeking Refuge Series Part 2: In Their Shoes

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0000refcampThis is the second part in a series of entries I’m writing based on my thoughts on the book “Seeking Refuge: On the Shores of the Global Refugee Crisis” by Stephan Bauman, Matthew Soerens, and Dr. Issam Smeir. The first entry in the series can be found here.

In my first entry in this series, I talked about how being able to put an actual human face on the current refugee crisis helps us to see the actual people involved and not just an issue or a political football. I mentioned a few different refugee stories in hopes that we could at least see something we can each identify with. Now I’m going to ask you to do something a little more direct.

One of the first great lessons I learned from literature was about empathy.  Many of us learned this great lesson from Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird.” Consider the wisdom of Atticus:

First of all,” he said, “if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view […] until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.

Now apparently Atticus became some kind of raging racist in the “sequel” that may or may not have ever been intended to be released. I don’t know, I didn’t read it. Even that doesn’t lessen the power of these words from the first novel though. “Walking around in somebody’s skin” might seem a bit more, uh, morbid than “Walking in someone else’s shoes,” but the point remains. How we can ever hope to treat another person fairly if we can’t even START to see things from their perspective?

As a matter of fact, many times in the Old Testament YHWH gives the nation of Israel similar advice. Exodus 22:21 states: “Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt.” (NIV). I quoted a similar verse from Leviticus in the first entry of this series. The message is clear, as the Israelites are now going about forming their own national and religious identity and establishing a land of their own, they are not to oppress foreigners, strangers, or sojourners (depending which translation you favor). Why? Because they HAD walked a mile in the shoes of a foreigner, which is what they were in Egypt.

So how do we even begin to apply this empathy in today’s refugee crisis? I almost didn’t even write this entry because the idea seemed so absurd to me as to border on offensive. I’m sitting here in a very well off area in the richest country ever to grace the face of the earth, typing on a laptop computer, listening to music on a speaker that I can just TALK TO and get to play pretty much any song I want, with my smartphone and my tablet right next to me, full of all the food and drink I can get, with a hockey game on mute on a big TV in front of me, and the only even MINOR discomfort in my life being the allergies that give me a sinus headache. Tomorrow I’ll go to my full time job and sit at a desk in an air conditioned building and make a lot more money than most people in the world do in a week by doing FAR less strenuous work. And I’ll probably complain because I’d rather spend the day reading and drinking coffee!

How can I, or how can anyone at least as privileged as I am, even begin to imagine life as a refugee? I had to start somewhere, so I started with: What if all those things were gone? The TV, the computer, the smartphone, the tablet, the Amazon Echo, the abundance of food at my fingertips, the comfy job….what if I lost all that? Well, if I lost all that I’d still be a damn sight better off than most people in the world.

What if I lost my home?
What if I lost my right to worship as I see fit?
What if my holding on to my faith meant I had to go underground to survive?
What if people were actively looking to kill me or my family because of religion, politics, or even ethnicity?

Well, my guess is I wouldn’t be really worried about not being able to get Alexa to play my favorite playlists anymore.

So if I had to flee with my family, where would I go? Well, we have a cabin in a nearby mountain range. I’d probably try there first. I’d have my shelter taken care of. I’m a former scout that spent many summers there. I could carve out a life at least for a bit. There’s food sources and water.

But what if I had to flee from there? What if I had to leave my state or even my country in such a hurry that all I had was the clothes on my back and what I could carry in a bag? Where would I go? Let’s assume I can’t fly anywhere and have no car. Maybe I’d make a break for Canada, eh? Their culture is very similar to ours, there would be no language barrier, the climate would be more like what I’m used to.

But what if I couldn’t get to Canada? What if we had to flee and none of us could get to Canada? What if our only option was to head south to Mexico? Given our President’s caustic remarks on Mexico and our country’s rather toxic views on immigration from Mexico, how do you think we’d be treated if that shoe were on the other foot? Hopefully they’d be nicer to us than many of us have been to them, but are you willing to bet your life and the life of your family on that?

Let’s say we actually make it to Mexico and manage to get across the border. I mean hey, if we build Mr. Trump’s wall that would be no small task! But let’s say we get across the Great Orange Hedgerow and make it into Mexico. I speak some Spanish, probably enough to communicate my basic needs and get the gist of conversation around me, but let’s face it, many places in the USA have become so hostile to any kind of multiculturalism that not speaking another language isn’t viewed as a weakness, but as something to be proud of! Imagine your average Trump twitter troll having to exist in Mexico!

Did I mention that you had to give up your precious guns when you cross the border? That’s right, you’re on their turf and you play by their rules. Did I mention that you probably had to sell anything of intrinsic value that you had left just to get food and water for the journey? Did I mention that your one set of clothes has become filthy and ragged from walking hundreds of miles? Did I mention that you haven’t seen a shower in weeks, let alone a laundromat?

Your feet are killing you.
Your kids can’t walk the distances that you can, so you either have to stop all the time, imperiling yourself as you flee, or carry them.
Your back hurts too.
Your one pair of shoes is shot. The busted blister on your foot is probably infected.

And some guard with a really big gun urges you into the American refugee camp in a not very calm or patient demeanor. Even if you speak a little Spanish, he speaks way too quickly for you to understand.

That’s right, a camp, such as the one pictured above. The book “Seeking Refuge” points out that the vast majority of refugees have no real valid chance to be resettled into a third country. Most of the world’s refugees have to stay right there in that camp….sometimes for YEARS.

Could you do that? Would you go nuts? You and your family get to live a tent with multiple other families. You have to share the space. You have to share the same bathroom facilities, you have to share the small amount of food and resources that are provided by relief organizations. Maybe even some of the same organizations that you’ve slagged on for being “a bunch of bleeding heart liberals” who “just want to give people shit for sitting on their asses.”

Oh and by the way, let’s say you don’t trust one of the guys living in the tent with your family. Maybe you see him staring at your young daughter a little too much. Maybe she comes to you and tells you he tried to force himself on her. You go to the “authorities” and maybe they tell you that they’ll look into it after they resolve other complaints. Maybe they tell you they’ll take the guy to another tent if you pay them money you don’t have. Maybe they’ll just laugh at you.

Then the ultimate indignity. Maybe you’re sitting with a group of people around one of the few radios in the camp listening to the news. You know enough Spanish by now that you can at least surmise that they’re talking about refugees…about you.  Then someone else in the group translates and says that the people in that country think that you’re a threat to their security and need to be removed. Maybe things are getting bad there now too and they don’t want any more of their resources being squandered by people just sitting there being lazy, and who don’t even speak the language!

Could you take that? Could handle going from your sweet, cushy American life to a refugee camp that might border on squalor?

Could you handle having everything that makes you “you” stripped away from you and sold to the highest bidder?

Could you put up with the total loss of your agency, the loss of all power to affect ANYTHING going on around you?

I’m not sure I could. Be honest with yourself. Could you? That’s why I shifted from “me,” to “we,” to “you” throughout this little exercise. I wanted you to have at least a chance to come to grips with those same stark thoughts that I did.

Maybe you say that it could never happen here.

Are you sure about that?

Maybe you really should consider walking a mile in their shoes before making another crack about refugees or lazy immigrants.

Editorial Note: In no way do I want to make people think that this scenario above is how people in Mexico might treat hypothetical refugees. In fact, I spent parts of two summers doing practical missions work in Mexico, and everyone I ran into was full of love and hospitality, no matter how “gringo” I was, and spoiler alert, I was very “gringo.” I was just inserting examples of some of the concerns that refugees face in the country to which they flee, a country that often does not let them work, has major cultural differences, and sometimes cares very little about their security. I was also trying to make the reader think of what it might be like if other people talked about us the way we often talk about them.

 

Seeking Refuge Series Part 1: Refugee Stories

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0000refugeeWhen an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19: 33-34 NRSV)

It’s funny how putting a human face on something, on an “issue” tends to make us see it in a different light. This happens all the time. For example, a number of years ago some members of family changed their stance on gay rights and marriage equality after a friend of our family’s came out. In what seems almost unbelievable to me, they now set around a table with our friends and treat these two young men just like any other young love birds! It’s really been quite a remarkable thing to witness.

So today I want to apply that thinking to refugees. If you’ve followed me for awhile you know that this is something I care very deeply about. This isn’t meant to be a “political” post either, it’s meant to be a “human” post. We need to stop seeing these folks as a political football and start seeing them as human beings with red blood just like us, with hopes and dreams just like us, and fears and concerns, just like us.

Recently I’ve been reading a book on refugees and resettlement called “Seeking Refuge: On the Shores of the Global Refugee Crisis,” by Stephan Bauman, Matthew Soerens, and Dr. Issam Smeir. These gentlemen all work for World Relief, one of the biggest NGOs that work to help refugees. If you know World Relief, then you know they are pretty much a staunch evangelical organization. These guys aren’t what you would generally call “bleeding heart liberals” or “progressive mainline Christians.” What they are is an evangelical Christian organization that takes the Bible’s commands about refugees and helping others very seriously, and that’s awesome!

One chapter in the book looks this thought of “humanizing” refugees straight in the eye by telling a few different stories. One is of a veterinarian and his family who were forced to flee the escalating violence in Syria. After trying to find a safe place in their home country they fled to Turkey, where the laws did not allow this man, Rami, or his family to work and sustain themselves. Rami and his family eventually registered with the United Nations High Council on Refugees (UNHCR) and after months and SEVERAL interviews with both the UN and various US agencies, Rami and his family were resettled to the United States with legal status. Within a couple of months, all the adults in the family had jobs and were able to meet their rent and begin repaying the loan for their plane tickets to the USA. Rami hopes to continue his work as a veterinarian after completing English courses and US licensing requirements. He and his family and children are grateful to the USA for the chance to live a peaceful life. (Bauman et. al. 51-54)

The book also tells a story about a woman named Deborah. Deborah is a Christian, and was being persecuted in her native Burma for her religious beliefs. Deborah’s husband had passed away, and she decided to flee Burma with her two young kids. They managed to make it all the way to Malaysia, where they were forced to live with several other refugee families in a single family dwelling with only one bathroom. Deborah spoke English, which helped her land a job working with a refugee aid organization in Malaysia, where she registered with the UNHCR. Finally FOUR YEARS after her resettlement case began, her and her children were allowed into the United States. They settled outside of Chicago where Deborah works to cover all their obligations and is heavily involved in a local church. She too is thankful. (Bauman et. al. 55-57)

Those are just a couple of stories from the book I’m reading. Just google “refugee stories” and you can find a whole lot more. I encourage you to do just that.

Oh, and by the way, there are many, MANY refugees still living in the country to which they originally fled, and most will stay there, as refugee resettlement tends to focus on only the most vulnerable cases. The UNHCR website relates the story of Sam.

0000Sam

Sam is originally from Afghanistan. He was forced to flee the country at 17 after both of his parents were murdered just because they were musicians. He managed to make it to Greece and started to build a life. One night he was walking home when he was ambushed and beaten by a mob. They left him unconscious in the road, where he was discovered by a passer by and taken home.  It kind of a sounds like what happens in the story of the Good Samaritan, doesn’t it?

With that in mind, the question for all of us is, how many suffering people are we ignoring in the streets of the world while we walk on by in our everyday lives and whine about being “safe” or someone “taking our jobs?”

Sam is quoted as saying this on the UNHCR site:

For me, one of the greatest challenges facing society, the government, and organizations like UNHCR, is combating hate. I wish that all could understand this: we are forced to flee our homes, we’re not coming here to cause trouble. I wish they could understand we’re all human beings, living under the same sky.

Think about that quote next time you hear people on the news complaining about refugees or fear mongering about refugees.  If you’re a Christian, spend some time in Scripture honestly grappling with it’s teachings on welcoming the stranger. Pray about it.

Then just maybe seek out some refugee stories in your own community.

This is part one of a series that I’m going to do on the refugee crisis as I read through this book. If you miss further entries you’ll be able to find them under the “refugee” tag or the new category I’ll be making called “Seeking Refuge Series.”

Book Review: “A Way Other Than Our Own,” by Walter Brueggemann

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0000Walter“A Way Other Than Our Own,” by Walter Brueggemann. Published 2017 by Westminster John Knox Press. This review refers to the paperback edition.

A large number of the Christian authors that I read cite Walter Brueggemann on a regular basis, so I decided to finally go straight to the horse’s mouth and check out some of his writing for myself. I’m really glad I did too! Over the last few years I’ve had some terrific companions for Lent including NT Wright, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Adam Hamilton. This book is up there with those as one of the best devotionals I’ve ever read.

The tact that Brueggemann often takes really strikes a chord with me right now, right where I’m at in my faith. He talks a lot about Christ versus Empire and Christ versus a consumerist culture. This tracks really well the “new monastic” movement of Shane Claiborne and others, something that also really touches my soul.

Many of the devotions in this book move along those lines, encouraging the reader to disengage from the narrative of the the world, the rat race, if you will, and embrace the narrative of Christ, the road of peace. Brueggemann doesn’t promise that taking this path will be easy. It requires submission and obedience to Christ as we truly travel “A Way other than our own.” While not easy, traveling this way with Jesus can result in fulfillment and a great sense of peace as we seek to better be the people He wants us to be.

Sometimes my concern with these kinds of books that ask us to step away from the world for a moment give me pause. I think there can be a fine line between choosing to just walk a different path IN the world and totally disengaging from the world, which I don’t believe that this is what God asks us to do. However, after reading through this devotional I can firmly say that while Brueggemann certainly advocates that we march to the beat of Christ’s drum, we continue to march in the world as a faithful witness.

But Wait, There’s More!

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In their fright the women bowed down their faces to the ground but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen!” (Luke 24: 5-6a NIV)

From the chants of Hosanna last Sunday, to the shouts of denial on Thursday, to the hammering of nails on Friday, and the dead stillness of Saturday, it’s been a long week. A week full of emotions, unmet expectations, and shattered dreams.

But then light broke through the dark in the stillness of Sunday morning. On Sunday morning the stone was rolled away, and the seal to the tomb was broken. On Sunday morning the forces of empire ran screaming in the other direction, unable to comprehend what they saw. On Sunday morning the impossible happened:

One who was dead rose again!

The implications for us are huge in scope! The grave is not the end. Death does not have the final word. To meet death is to meet Christ, and he has defeated it once and for all!

But wait, there’s more! 

Jesus doesn’t just offer a promise for after you die. I mean, hey, eternal life, new life in Him sounds pretty good, but you don’t have to wait until you die! That new life can start now, this minute!

It’s not a promise that says that life will never be hard, or that you will never be sad, or that you will not feel pain. The promise is that Christ feels those things with you, alongside you, because he felt them too. He wants to be with you, he wants to share your pain. The lows will still feel low, but the the highs….the highs can become more than you can imagine.

All you have to do is say yes to Him.  Yes is a simple word but the implications are profound. Saying yes to someone requires trust, and believe me I know that trusting someone can get you burned. But Christ is not like that, and he’ll be there for you, welcoming you even at the end of all things.

Do you believe? I do. As Adam Hamilton says, “I don’t just believe it, I’m counting on it!”

“So come lose your life for a carpenter’s son, for a mad man who died for a dream, and you’ll have the faith his first followers had, and you’ll feel the weight of the beam.

So surrender the hunger to say you ‘must know,’ and have the courage to say ‘I believe!’ Then the power of paradox opens your eyes and blinds those who say they can see!” –Michael Card

Maundy Thursday: A Juxtaposition

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I had something I was originally going to put in this space. It wasn’t my best work, but it was pretty good, as far as I’m concerned. Maybe you’ll get to read it next year.

Instead, I’m going to show you two images from today.

0000juxt2One is something referred to as the “Mother of All Bombs.” It was dropped on some people who did bad things.  The Empire rejoices in it’s raw power to inflict pain, but it leads to nothing but fire and death.

“Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.” (Matt 26:52)

 

0000juxt1The other is of a gentle old man, who holds a position of great power, washing the feet of prisoners, some people who did bad things. The Empire scoffs and calls him a fool, but only his example has the power to transform hearts and lives.

“A new commandment I give to you. Love one another as I have loved you. (John 13:34)

Fire and death, or love and transformation? No person can serve two masters.

Speaking of The Master, He is anguished almost to the point of death, and walking into Gethsemane in the dark, alone.

Can you stay awake and keep watch?

Or will you fall asleep and be taken by surprise at the arrival of The Betrayer?

The spirit is willing, but the flesh is week indeed.

…..to be continued……

0000juxt3

 

 

The Old-Timer and “Kavod.”

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0000oldprospectorWhen a scoffer is punished, the simple become wiser;
when the wise are instructed, they increase in knowledge. (Proverbs 21:11 NRSV)

I had an interesting conversation at work tonight, but it almost never took place. I was sitting at my desk, which is just off the sales floor in the store where I work, buried in some paperwork, and trying to put out a fire that somebody else in one of our other stores had started. I’m sure I looked like I was busy. I’m sure of it. I had my head down, my glasses pushed up on my brow, that vein that sticks out in my forehead when I’m frustrated was about to pop out and do a dance on the desk in front of me. The empty can that formerly held my second energy drink of the day sat next to the empty package that had held the antacid that I had just taken.

An older gentleman approached my desk. In his hand was one of the latest “As Seen on TV” products, a tactical type flashlight that featured a super bright LED light that you could control the intensity of and also set it to flash SOS in Morse Code.  In addition to that, it’s made of hard metal and has a scalloped type rim around the light bulb that makes it a formidable weapon should you decide to knock somebody up-side the head with it. Honestly it’s quite the product. I’ve thought about getting one myself, not to brain somebody with, but because of the bright light and the SOS strobe. I figured it might be a handy thing to have in the glove box.

Anyway, the gentleman approached me, and despite the fact that I was OBVIOUSLY busy, (duh!), excused himself and asked me if I knew how bright the flashlight was. My first thought was…seriously? What do you want, the amount of lumens? How should I know? However, I’ve worked in customer service for 20 years, and I know enough not to betray my frustration. I put my pen in my ear and looked at the package. It did specify the number of lumens actually, but that’s Greek to me. Ugh, Why did he come to me? I have a desk job now, I’m IMPORTANT for Pete’s sake! (Apparently I’m kind of a self important jerkface too. Yes, Holy Spirit, I am sufficiently convicted….I think).

I figured the easiest thing to do would be to pass the guy off to one of my coworkers, then I could get back to the super huge important thing I was working on. I got on my walkie-talkie and called one of the part timers over. I asked him if he could take the gentleman, open the package, and put some batteries in the flashlight so he could see how bright it was. My coworker Corbin, who is a great kid, said sure and escorted the gentleman away. Finally I could get back to work!

Oh…..not so fast, my friend.

About five minutes later the gentleman starts striding toward my desk again, clutching the now open, and turned on, flashlight. He’s got a smile as wide as the Grand Canyon, and as I look past him I see that two of my coworkers, the aforementioned Corbin and Morgan, our cashier, are grinning ear to ear. They know what I’m in for, and I make a mental note to make them PAY at some point in the very near future. I will not be trifled with!

This old gentleman, who looked a lot like the picture in this post, didn’t care about that though. He had to show me how bright the flashlight was.

Sigh.

Resigned to my fate, I crossed one leg over the other and leaned back in my chair, fully expecting to tune this guy out. I’d smile, nod, and say “uh huh, uh huh,” a few times and hopefully he’d be good.

Yeah, it didn’t work out that way.

He told me about how it was about as bright as another one he had, but had a better casing on it. He told me he could see his cows up on the mountain 600 yards away with it!

“Uh huh.”

He told me about how it did the SOS code and gave me a short primer on Morse Code. I looked at my watch.

“Uh huh.” Yeah bro, I was in scouts, and I watch “Survivorman.”

He told me about how if you shined it in somebody’s eyes it would effectively blind them, and you could either hit them with it, or you could go for an incapacitating kick! He said a lot of folks tell you to aim for the genitals, but for his money, you go for the kneecap! Did I know that he could break my kneecap with a kick?

“Uh huh.”

As he went along he got more and more animated. At one point I was pretty sure that he had forgotten that he was actually talking to somebody.

My manager walked by and giggled, then continued on her merry way. I looked at my watch again. Then he asked me another question. He asked if I had ever gone out into the desert and collected arrowheads or “painted rocks.” This struck a chord with me. As it turns out, I have! My grandpa and grandma used to pass the winters in Quartzsite, Arizona. They’d pull their trailer down there every year, and my papa (as I knew him) would get together with a bunch of his old buddies and play in a band called the “Desert Varnish.” My papa was the lead singer and the guitar player. They set up a dance floor in the middle of the flippin’ desert and “snowbirds” would come from all over the area to dance at the “Stardusty Ballroom” while my papa and his band played all the big band standards and topped it off with a heavy dose of old time country music.

It’s by far the coolest thing anybody in my family has EVER done. The BBC even flew a team out to make a documentary about it!

And wouldn’t you know it, when we would go down to visit them, papa would take me out into the desert to look for artifacts and “painted rocks.” Yes this older gentleman now had my full attention. I never looked at my watch again.

I lost track of time as he spun more tales. He told me about how he had to escape a mountain lion on one occasion. He told me about a bunch of really cool arrowheads he had found, and how you could try to determine how old they might be. He told me what it was like to get up at 4:30 in the morning, make a pot of coffee on the fire, and sit in the middle of the desert and watch the sunrise. He said the sunset had NOTHING on the sunrise in the desert! He asked me if I’d ever seen anything so beautiful?

I realized I had not.

Finally he looked at his own watch and said, “Well, I’ve probably taken too much of your time already. Thank you for having that young man open that flashlight for me, and thanks for listening.” Then he sat the flashlight down on the desk in front of me and left.

I just sat and looked at the flashlight, then I picked it up and rolled it over in my hands a couple of times. I turned it on and off, then I tried the SOS feature. My eyes got heavy with water as I remembered my papa.

Morgan came over to my desk. She had heard the whole thing, and was wondering how I had managed to stay so patient.

“Everybody has a story,” I said, “and I love to hear them. Plus he’s probably just lonely and needed to talk.” She agreed, and went back to work. Then I thought, “Hey you know maybe God had him cross paths with me so I could be the one guy who would listen to him and give him some cheer! I did my good deed for the day!” Then I patted myself on the back for being so “in tune” with the Spirit.

Did I mention that sometimes I’m a self-important jerkface?

Somewhere up there in Heaven I could feel God do a massive face palm.

On the way home a short time later, it hit me. Ye Olde Holy Ghost smacked me up-side the head with his own holy version of the As Seen On TV tactical flashlight.

“I know you think you’re a Big Deal with your Lenten devotions, your Sunday School class teaching, and your local pastor program. Well listen here, Big Deal. Did it ever occur to you that maybe I didn’t send you for him, that maybe I sent him for YOU?”

Huh.

You see, I had come to the realization eventually that being there in that moment, being present in that conversation was HEAVY. I realized that it had meant something, that SOMETHING was happening. As Pastor Rob Bell talks about in his book “What We Talk About When We Talk About God,” the Old Testament Hebrews had a word for that. They called it kavod.

Kavod was originally a term for weight, like in a business transaction. Over time it gathered a new meaning. It meant a weighty moment, a heavy moment, a moment when you knew that SOMETHING was happening. In some places in the Psalms and Isaiah, it is also akin to the “Glory of God,” which is a weighty subject indeed. Can you stand next to the unbridled glory of YHWH? I know I sure can’t, but if I tried, it would be a very heavy moment!

So eventually in that moment tonight, I realized that kavod was happening. I realized that that conversation MEANT SOMETHING. But I was wrong about one thing. I presumptuously thought that it was just meaningful to him, that I, the Big Deal, was doing him a favor.

Yeah, that’s right. I’m so awesome that God just sends random people to my desk at work so I can cheer them up.

SNORT.

I don’t know whether it was kavod for him or not, but it definitely was for me. Not only did I get to recover some precious memories of my grandfather, but I got a look at just how presumptuous I can be and learned that I can benefit and become wiser from every interaction as well, as the verse from Proverbs above mentions. My eyes were opened to true life just a little more.

And it might not have happened had I not laid my self importance aside, and you know what?

I suddenly have the desire to get up at 4:30 AM, make a cup of coffee, and watch the sunrise.

And I think I just might get me one of those tactical flashlights.

Can’t I Just Enjoy Palm Sunday?

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000palmsundayThen they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,

“Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord (Mark 11: 7-9 NRSV)

If you’re like me and grew up in a church it’s very possible that Palm Sunday (also known as Passion Sunday) was a pretty neat time. I remember as a kid they’d hand us all the palm branches and we’d get to march around the sanctuary waving them around while everybody sang a hymn, usually “Hosanna, Loud Hosanna,” and our parents looked at us with their “Oh how precious” faces and once in awhile took pictures. You know, with actual cameras. These were the days before cell phones after all. Everybody smiled, the music was boisterous, and the mood was joyful.

Well we still do that today at Community United Methodist, where I’m a member. Pastor Gary threw out a wrinkle today though. He let the adults join in the marching! Now in light of what I just said, you’d think I’d be all for jumping in there, right?

Wrong.

Now I am known as kind of a famous curmudgeon, and I suppose that could be PART of it, but there was something else going on in my mind. I really couldn’t get into it, because I was looking ahead to what happens later in the week.

I first ran into that feeling as a teenager.  When I was still in high school I took a job as a cantor for the big Roman Catholic Church here in Ogden. It was there, at St. Joseph’s, where I encountered Lent and Passion Sunday for the first time. I mean at first it was cool, there were still palm branches, and many of the folks folded them into little crosses. Huh. I never would have thought to do that. We even got to sing “Hosanna, Loud Hosanna” with the church’s HUGE (bigly) pipe organ! But then when they read scripture they read the Passion narrative, and it was interactive. When they got to the part where Pilate asks the crowd what they want done with Jesus, the congregation (and me as cantor) responded with “Crucify him! Crucify him!” As a 17 year old kid who still wasn’t really well grounded in his faith (even though I thought was), I didn’t like hearing those words come out of my mouth. I remember going to my own church later in the day, where I was a worship leader, and sitting there before our service started and thinking to myself, “Can’t I just enjoy Palm Sunday?”

This morning I was thinking about that experience all those years ago. We ended our service with the hymn “Go to Dark Gethsemane” and exited the sanctuary without a benediction, the idea was that Holy Week begins on Palm Sunday and stretches through the whole week, as one act. As we left, the last hymn clearly put the focus on the events later in the week.

Can’t I just enjoy Palm Sunday?

I wonder if Jesus did. Jesus knew what was going to happen. As easy as it might have been for him to get caught up in the crowds and the adoration around him as he fulfilled Zechariah’s prophecy, he still knew. He knew that he would not be the conquering military leader that the people expected, the one who would save them from the Romans. He knew that in five days his best friends would run away from him during his time of deepest anguish, and one of them would betray him. He knew that in just five days the same people shouting “Hosanna” would be shouting “CRUCIFY HIM” instead. He knew that in just five days, or 120 short hours, that he would die a horrible, humiliating, painful death.

No, I’m not sure he enjoyed Palm Sunday. If I could be so presumptuous as to put myself in his shoes for 25 seconds that day, I don’t think I would have enjoyed it, indeed I’m not sure I could have handled it. I guess for him maybe that being “Fully God” as well as “Fully Human” part might have helped.

Now I’m not saying that Palm Sunday is bad. In fact, it’s necessary. It was ordained, and maybe it’s just possible to steal a few minutes worth of joy from. However, it is just a beginning. It is the beginning of the final act of Jesus’ divine ministry here on earth. That act will feature very little joy in days ahead, and more than it’s fair share of sorrow, suffering and death.

You could be tempted to skip right to the end of the play, right to the end of story where joy just might await, where you see who gets the last word. I implore you though this week: don’t do that.

Be fully present in the moment. Be fully present in the drama. Be fully present in the sorrow. Don’t pass up the hours of lament to skip to the the joy. The lament, the sorrow, and the drama invigorate the joy!

The dark always comes before the dawn. But don’t fret the dark. Walk through it, move through it, and push through it, for it is in the deepest, most painful darkness that we encounter the most moving, beautiful, and dynamic Grace.

 

To be continued……….

Book Review: “Prophetic Lament,” by Dr. Soong-Chan Rah

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0000Lament“Prophetic Lament: A Call For Justice In Troubled Times,” by Soong-Chan Rah. Published 2015 by IVP Books. This review refers to the paperback edition.

I want to begin this post by acknowledging that it’s been FOREVER since I posted. There’s a good reason for that. Since the first of the year I’ve started a new position at work that pretty much doubled my hours. Great for the checkbook, great since I’m finally getting some benefits, not so great for creative time, reading time, and devotional time! I’m getting some things worked out though, so I hope to soon be posting again on at least a semi-regular basis.

I’ve been on a book buying binge with some of my new found cash on hand, and this book was one of the first ones I picked up. Doctor Soong-Chan Rah is a professor of Church Growth and Evangelism at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago. He has a heart for the poor, the outcast, the marginalized, the minorities, and the inner city. He has a lot to say about the way the church in the USA practices “urban ministry,” and a lot of it is difficult to hear, yet pretty much all of it rings true.

The backdrop for his insights into this subject and others is the Old Testament book of Lamentations, in fact this book itself is a fairly extensive look at Lamentations, which let’s face it, hardly anybody ever looks at. It’s pessimistic, brooding, sorrowful, dark, and in some places VERY graphic. I mentioned this book and the Book of Lamentations recently in a sermon I preached right before the start of Lent this year, when I was filling in for Pastor Gary. I suggested that a good “perspective gathering” practice for Lent would be to read through Lamentations. Somehow I doubt anyone took me up on that.

However, if you ever get a desire to check out one of the Bible’s least read, yet most moving books, then “Prophetic Lament” is a great guide to have along with you. Doctor Rah goes through the entire book of Lamentations and gives very insightful commentary on the structure of the book, the genre of lament, the usage of different words and terms from the original Hebrew, and the original context of the book: the fall of Jerusalem and the Babylonian exile.

Some of you might be thinking “No way, man. The last thing I want to read is some stodgy academic work about a moldy old book in the Old Testament that my pastor never even mentions!”  Well, first it’s a pity if your pastor never mentions it. The story told in the book of Lamentations is essential to understanding not only the Jewish people of the Old Testament, but even the Jewish faith today, and of course we all *should* know by now that our Christianity is a development on that Jewish faith. Lamentations is still used today during the Jewish commemoration of Tisha B’Av, which according to Rah recalls not only the first fall of Jerusalem in 586 BCE, but the second fall of the city in 70 CE (that’s BC and AD for you non history types), and even the Holocaust during World War II. Lament in general and Lamentations in specific are part of the way Jewish people deal with the trauma of their history.

In that same vein, Rah suggests that lament would be a good way to help cope with the trauma of our current age. Look around at the last few years. So many young black men have been killed or left to die and rarely is anyone held accountable. Systemic racism is alive and well in the United States, and since the last election some of the people who claim that horrible ideology have stopped bothering to hide in the shadows. They’re now emboldened by a new nationalism that has been forged in the fires of the fears inherent to the post 9/11 world. Whether you believe that certain politicians purposefully tried to harness those sentiments or not, what is not up for debate is the fact that those voices are now louder and more strident than they have been probably in the last 50 years.

So what is our response as the Church, the Body of Christ? Here is where the rubber meets the road in this book. Rah believes, and I agree, that by and large American Christianity (particularly but not limited to the evangelical flavor) has discarded the practice of lament and closed it’s ears to the voices of people who are suffering from things like racism, poverty, systemic injustice, and an economic/justice system is seemingly rigged against them from day one. We’ve replaced that with the theology of celebration, where we sit back and marvel at how successful our most recent church plant is, about how many people flock to the local mega church and it’s many “campuses” every Sunday, about how many books the charismatic white male preacher with the perfect teeth can sell to the masses, about our many kids in our perfect little Sunday School programs….and on and on.

Then to add insult to injury we wealthy suburbanites decide we’ve been “called” to the inner city, to take our oh so wonderful and oh so white church models into the inner city and “save people.”

But who do we save, and what do people really need saving from? Rah points out that the density of churches in our urban areas is already quite large. The problem isn’t that we need to make more churches or take what we see as our “successful church model” into the city. The problem is that our white, suburban, Christian culture is so wrapped up in patting itself on the back that we’ve left out a huge chunk of Christ’s message: We need to stand for and stand WITH the suffering. What better function could the church serve than to give a voice and a venue to the voiceless and suffering? Lament allows us to do just that, but we have to be ready to get down in the dirt with the suffering, not just magnify their cries from an ivory tower high above.

I could have spent most of this post talking about Rah’s excellent commentary on Lamentations. It IS excellent and you should check it out. It’s not stodgy either, it’s very accessible, though certainly an interest in history, theology, and the Old Testament help. However, I really wanted to talk about what he spends most of the book talking about: the way we as the Church apply lament today to our culture. Rah talks a lot about how to incorporate lament and Lamentations into worship, and it’s certainly something I’m looking forward to looking into when I get a chance.

All in all this is a great, challenging, thought provoking, and much needed book. If you’re especially interested in a multi-cultural view on American Christianity then you really NEED to pick this one up.

Thoughts on The Wall

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0000wallNo one can stop The Wall! Right? I’m going to depart from my usual subject here on the blog just this once. No, I’m not turning into a music reviewer and talking about Pink Floyd. I want to talk about Trump’s wall.

Oh, I can hear the groaning already! “Ugh, a political post! I’m out of here!” Just hear me out. This isn’t a political post at all in the sense of being for or against a candidate. It’s my view on the specific policy of building a wall on our southern border. I’m not here to thrash the President or sling mud, I just want to say why I think the Wall is a tremendous waste of money and resources.

But why should you care what I think? I don’t know if you should honestly, but it’s my blog, so there. Also, I’m not just a bleeding heart wannabe pastor guy. I also have a degree in Criminal Justice that features a fairly extensive discussion and education on security policy and anti-terror policy. This was a feature of any CJ program in the days after 9/11. I had classes and seminars from police officers, members of a Joint Terrorism Task Force, and even a retired British SAS soldier who had pulled duty in Belfast and other places in Northern Ireland.

So I’m still not saying you NEED to care what I think, but I’m not talking out of my rear end either.

The first thing we need to get out of the way is that opposing a big, physical barrier on the border does not mean you’re for “open borders” necessarily. I am certainly not. However, people misrepresent the views of people like me in order to make a relatively moderate view seem like an extreme leftist view. Trust me, I know and speak regularly with a lot of liberals, and not one of them is for “open borders.” On the flip side, wanting a more secure border doesn’t necessarily make you a racist, a fascist, or inhuman. We all want to be safe. The question is, how do we balance the desire to be safe with the call to be compassionate? Also, how do we use the resources at our disposal in a responsible manner to provide more dependable security?

Look, the southern border has issues. It always has, it probably always will. It’s long, it has a very diverse geography with several sections that are hard to fortify including rivers and mountain ranges. It is impossible to fortify every square mile of the southern border. That is a cold, hard, fact. It crosses private land that the government may or may not be able to seize. It crosses Native American land which the government can definitely NOT seize (lawfully anyway).

But there are reasons to try to secure the border more than it is in it’s present state. The former SAS soldier that I took seminars from was very honest when he said that with America’s airports and seaports being fortified in the wake of 9/11, the porous southern border becomes the easiest, most vulnerable way for someone with nefarious intentions to enter the country. Also, the flow of illegal narcotics across the border fuels America’s drug addictions and funnels huge amounts of money to cartels that then use that money to oppress people and expand their control. This in turn creates a desire to flee areas of cartel control, and about the only sure way to do that is to head for the United States. This results in a massive human trafficking problem where some of the world’s most vulnerable people will pay the very same cartels that they are trying to escape from every cent they have to be smuggled across the border. If they succeed in crossing they are often either left to fend for themselves or funneled into cartel run safe houses where they are often mistreated, exploited, or even sometimes sold into servitude (a particular problem for young women).

So having admitted that there IS a problem on the southern border, the next question we ask ourselves is: “Will a wall do anything to deter these actions and if so, will that offset the cost of building and maintaining it?”

For me, the answer is a resounding no. First off, I’ve already stated that it is impossible to fortify every square mile of the border, so there’s going to be large gaps in the wall, rendering it fairly useless to deter anyone who is at least enterprising enough to walk to the end of the damn thing. Plus, even if you COULD build it along the entire stretch of the border, the wall itself becomes vulnerable to breach if it’s not totally staffed every second of every day. Do you honestly think the United States can afford to spend 20 billion dollars on building a wall, let alone cover the cost of defending it? Plus, the wall will constantly be exposed to the eroding forces of nature, meaning that the cost to maintain it just went up as well.

People make comparisons to the Great Wall of China. Well, we’re not dealing with Mongolians on horseback (South Park reference alert). America’s drug habit ensures a steady stream of cash to cartels who often have technology and weapons at their disposal that are at least as good as, if not better than, the stuff that the good folks at the CBP have. If human history teaches us anything about ourselves it is that if someone builds a 12 foot wall, somebody else will build a 13 foot ladder. Of course who needs ladders when you can dig a tunnel, fly a helicopter, or just blow a whole in the damn thing with all that firepower you bought in America with the money made from selling drugs to Americans?

As long as humans have built walls other humans have figured out ways to get around them or through them. Make no mistake, both cartels and terror organizations are highly organized criminal enterprises with a lot of resources at hand. A wall might deter a few poor wannabe immigrants from trying to walk across the border to come pick fruit in a field and try to provide a better life for their family, but it’s not going to do much to stop someone who really wants to get in and hurt us. It’s almost impossible to do that in a free and open society. You know what building a wall does accomplish though? It tricks frightened and skittish American voters into thinking you’re actually doing something about the problem so they and the rest of us can continue to walk through our relatively carefree lives largely oblivious to and ignorant of the problems of the larger world around us.

These are problems that can’t be solved just by throwing money at them, doing buzzword filled TV interviews, complaining on social media, writing long off topic blog posts, or even building big ass walls. I don’t pretend to have the answers, but I think doing things like hiring more border patrol folks, giving them better training and equipment, giving them better pay and benefits to make the job more attractive, and seeking more 21st century type ways to fortify the border are all better ways to spend our money than just building a big wall that must be constantly staffed and maintained. These types of solutions should be coupled with real policies designed to combat the problems inherent at the border. How do we support our allies in Mexico so that they can fight cartels and make their country safer? How do we seek to deal with America’s drug addiction and stem the flow of narcotics? The “War on Drugs” was a colossal failure, after all. How do we combat human trafficking and inhibit the cartels’ ability to operate this enterprise on both sides of the border? How do we keep America’s readily available arms and firepower out of the hands of cartels or terrorists?

Answering these questions and more provides us with the chance to make life better and more secure for people on both sides of our southern border. It’s going to take a lot of ingenuity, hard work, and maybe even some *gulp* COMPROMISE with folks who don’t agree with EVERYTHING you think.

That used to be something that America was good at. That used to be something that was viewed as a strength of our form of government. Now we’re too busy thinking that everyone who disagrees with us on ANYTHING is the devil incarnate.

I hope we snap out of it before we flush billions of dollars down the toilet and tear our country apart. Again, this is purely my opinion, and it may not be worth much. However, I needed to get it off my chest. Don’t look forward to more of these, this isn’t a political blog and it never will be. You’re certainly free to disagree if you wish, but if you’re one of these partisan trolls on either side that likes to just leave comments to stir up trouble, don’t bother. Your comment will not be approved. I cannot have my blog turned into a cesspool like Twitter or Facebook. I hesitated to even post this, but I felt like I needed to say it.

We will now return to our regularly scheduled “Path of Grace.”

God bless.