“The Storms Beat Against the House But it Did Not Fall…”

I reside in North Las Vegas, a region not foreign to crime.  In fact the Insurance rates for my zip code are among the highest in the Nation due to theft and burglary. We purchased this house in 1999 as I began to receive custody of my boys and our growing blended family required more space.  The house had already been vandalized before we moved in, so I had my brother, an ordained Greek Orthodox Priest, drive up to do a traditional House Blessing of Protection on the structure and it’s occupants.

This house is located on a cul-de-sac along with ten other homes.  In speaking with neighbors over the years I can safely state that every home in our cul-de-sac has been burglarized at least once since we moved in, and most of them, twice!  The house directly across from me was hit in broad daylight even though the owner kept two large and loud Rottweilers in his yard.  Every home has been breached…that is, every home except mine!  No, I didn’t install the latest home security system or upgrade my doors and windows.  Oh, but they have tried!  I can walk around my home and point out where they tried to jimmy the lock on the front door, where they attempted to pry open the garage door, where they damaged the back sliding door-all in failed attempts to enter this house.  Amateurs? I doubt it.  So what?  I’m convinced it’s because a hedge of unseen protection remains on this dwelling because before we set up residence we dedicated it to God and covered it with His hand of security so that nothing could come against it as long as we remained in it.

Those who know me and know a little about my story over the past two years will tell you that I have suffered my share of storms and would-be intruders.  The enemy who would come to invade and steal has come at me from every angle, and every point of access.  I have been hit with storms against relationships, against my finances, against my health and against my very soul.  I am no saint.  When the winds blew I wanted to give in.  I had little energy or will to fight back, and like my house, I have scars and evidence of the attempted intrusions that I will carry forever. But, also like my house, I was dedicated to God when I entered into this life, and those two Godly parents who dedicated me continued to pray as I weathered the storms of these past few years and as a result, I did not come crashing down in total calamity.

In Matthew 7 Jesus makes a comprison between those who hear his teachings and put them into life practice and those who hear but ignore the lessons;

Therefore anyone who hears my words and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on a rock. The rains came, the streams rose and the winds blew and beat against the house , and yet it did not fall because it’s foundation was rock solid. But everyone who hears my words and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house over sand.  The rains came, the steams rose and the winds blew against that house and it fell in a total collapse”.

None of us can skate through this life untouched by storms of change, of trials, of severe testing.  And if you profess Christ, you are guaranteed times of suffering.  I know, it’s not popular and doesn’t preach well on Sunday mornings, but it is scriptural.  “In this life you will have trials”, Jesus warned us.  Not if, but when. It is in these trials that the mettle of your foundation, your faith, your genuine status of Christ follower, will be exposed for all to see.  Will you be left standing after the enemy comes against you with high winds and driving rain, or will you crash into rubble and be swept away with the flood? There is no sin or shame in suffering.  There is glory in surviving it! The witness is in the mercy and grace of God when we need it most.

How is it with you?  Rock or sand?

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Has the Salt of the Earth Lost its Taste?

Today marks one week from the tragic shooting in Parkland, FL that claimed another seventeen lives as the country’s latest mass murder.  While my heart aches for all those involved as I mourn with those who mourn, my spirit is heavy as I read the predictable responses of insensitivity to the blood soaked bodies of young, innocent martyrs who will never get their opportunity at Life, Liberty or the Pursuit of Happiness because they were quite literally caught in the crossfire of binary opposition and bipartisan loyalty valued more precious than their lives. My God, what have we as a free nation become?

I am quite certain that there will be those who read my blog today who will attempt to paint me as a “leftard” or “libtard” or any one of other convenient labels used to defuse any rational dialogue; while I am not a leftist, I’m also not concerned with the labels applied to this or to me.  I am deeply troubled that the lives of these children who are precious in the eyes of God, will be swept under the rug of personal liberties by the broom of Second Amendment demagoguery in the hands of wealthy profiteers whose collective voices and financial influence speak volumes over the cries of those not even old enough to cast a vote yet or otherwise defend themselves. More disgusting to me is that many of these will be my Christian siblings in the faith, touting self-defense against a non-existent tyrannical government, citing Nazi Germany and the former Soviet Union as reason enough to possess weapons that to date have only been effectively used in perpetrating heinous evil against children we have failed to adequately protect.  Things ought not to be this way in America!

So I am forced to look inward as I struggle for answers.  Have I aided in these tragedies by my silence or inactivity?  Am I fulfilling the laws of scripture in loving my neighbors as much as or more than I love myself?  In Matthew chapter 5 Jesus tells us that we are the salt of the earth; if we lose our saltiness, we become worthless and are good for nothing but ground cover.  How do we maintain our taste? In the same manner we are called light, but we shed no light if we keep our light dimmed or hidden under a lamp shade.  The answer to this is found in another passage that reads that the world will know we are believers and followers of Christ and his teaching when they witness how we love and support each other.  This is not a love that is exclusive to believers; in fact Christ said to love our enemies and any who pose a threat to us.  He said how easy it is to love someone who loves you in return, but true religion is loving on the unlovable.  But when these arguments arise over the social ills of humanity and how to Biblically address them, we can’t even adequately love or respect each other-we in essence lose our saltiness and worse we shed what little light we have left poorly on authentic Christianity.  I fear if things don’t change we are going to have so much to answer for some day and will have nothing of merit to offer as a defense except an amendment to a Bill of Rights for a bordered plot of land that no longer exists.  Have we become that earthly minded that we have completely disregarded Kingdom obedience?

An influential young leader once asked Jesus how he might obtain Heaven, and Jesus responded with the parable we have all heard about the Good Samaritan.  It is so widely adopted that the term “good Samaritan” is almost a generic term now.  At the heart of the parable was the question, just who exactly, is my neighbor.  I can’t begin to address the disdain Jews held against those of Samaria.  But the lesson for us is that in his time of great need and distress, it wasn’t the church who came to his aid, nor the local government, but it was he who was viewed as an enemy who took up the cause of attending to the man’s wounds and paying for his care.  The neighbor was the person who showed kindness, compassion and mercy to the victim of the crime.  He paid from his own pockets for the care needed and held back no expense in restoring the victim in a show of true faith and Godly love.  That should be the response of all believers when faced with defending the defenseless; our personal rights and welfare, if we bear the title of Christian, must become secondary to meeting the needs of those who befall tragedy.  I realize how unpopular a statement this is and that it will not be well received because, after all, we are Americans and we have rights.  To that I must reply, at what age do those rights become applicable?  Do we have rights upon birth?  Do we have rights only if we vote in elections?  Do we have rights only after we reach the legal age to purchase a weapon?  And if so, then upon whom does the care and custody of those with no rights befall? What reasonable explanation can be offered to the parents of a child who did not come home from school as to why there were no controls in place to secure the safety of their children?  Why has the love of Christ and its manifestation been stifled by the “me first” self-preservationist attitudes of those more fearful of intrusion than reliant on God’s sovereign hand of protection?

The whole of the gospel is love, pure, untainted, unsoiled, non-partisan, unselfish Christ-like love. The old song says “What the world needs now is love, sweet love-it’s the only thing that there’s just too little of”.  Those lyrics are just as true today as they were back when.  But that love can’t be regulated or legislated.  And it can’t be manufactured as Biblically mandated except through the supernatural transformation of a relationship with Jesus, the Christ.  But if we who have access to this supernatural gift are too fearful to express it when needed the most because of divisive labels and hateful rhetoric within our own family ranks, then God have mercy on a society that will never get better, and forgive us for looking the other way when our children pay the ultimate price as we cling to our automatic weapons, just in case. In that instance, the salt of the earth has lost all of its flavor worthy of nothing more than being discarded and trampled.

Cup Runneth Over or Leaking Out the Bottom?

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Can we put aside the Christian facades and be real for a minute?  Believers are expected to live out their lives with a smile pasted on their face as if oblivious to all that’s happening around them, “counting it all joy when facing trials of every nature” as if numb to pain like mindless zombies on Quaalude. But for every believer who truly lives like this, with a cup that runneth over, there’s a believer whose glass is always half empty because of the leaks in it, some due to bad choices but often times due to no real fault of their own.  And try as they might to fix the leaks and minimize the loss, they only encounter additional leaks, like a bad cartoon character using gum to stop a leak in a dam but running out of gum before running out of leaks.

It is hard to not be distracted by the reality of our circumstances. Even the Apostle Peter, whose faith was such that he was the only person to ever walk on water besides Jesus, could not help but notice the waves licking at his feet and the darkness of the watery depth that endangered him to the point of temporarily losing his religion.  This same Peter, the Rock, crumbled in fear when asked if he was one of the disciples of Jesus, to the point of denying all knowledge of Him to save his own skin. Thomas, referred to by some as the doubting Saint, was a man like Peter who lived life for three years in the footsteps of Jesus, heard His messages first hand, witnessed His miracles and sat in on the intimate lessons Jesus taught His disciples.  But when faced with the physical evidence of torture and death that his eyes could not deny, Thomas doubted that Jesus could really do what He claimed He would, and had to be shown physical evidence that in fact Jesus did exactly what He said.  I don’t know about you but I can freely admit I am no Peter or Thomas.  And so the cup leaks.

I am not convinced that God is impressed with our brave fronts or the smiley masks we hide behind when faced with unwanted changes or calamity. In fact it reads in Psalm 34 that “God is close to the broken hearted”. We can sing and proclaim all we want “Blessed be your name on the road marked with suffering..” on the outside but there are those times when our spirit fails us, when our drive and passion wane, and just uttering the name “Jesus” is a challenge.

Leaks come in many manifestations-physical illness, unemployment, failed businesses, unwanted divorce, criminal victimization, and those unmentioned “testing of our faith” that all of us need but none of us want. The outward evidence of the Apostle Paul’s faith is recorded-he healed the sick and raised the dead just as Jesus did!  But the inward evidence of his faith told another story.  He had physical ailments that he was never healed of and endured them until his death only by God’s grace.  Ah, and in my Shakespearean voice, there’s the rub.

Those things that God allows into our lives to test us can only be endured by a measure of grace that He gives at the same time.  In a very twisted sense, it’s tantamount to saying I’m going to cut up your arm but I’m leaving you with a year’s supply of bandages and Neosporin so you can treat the wound until it heals. In that light it sounds a bit cruel and not very God-like.  But these lessons have a purpose in bringing out a level of maturity and stability that can only come from a continual determination to keep getting up when you keep getting knocked down. That said, if I were to be completely honest, I sometimes wish God would just grant me a passing grade instead of driving me to acing the test. But that’s not my call.  Apparently He sees things in each of us that when refined, can be useful for His purpose, one we may or may not ever fully know.

Wouldn’t it be nice if a single sincere prayer could stop a leak like flex-tape, that whatever comes our way we could just say the magic prayer, quote the scripture du jour of the day and sprinkle a little faith so we could have fuller cups?  But and alas, God doesn’t work like that.  He sent His own Son into the desert for 40 days for a 3 year ministry.  Do the math-we will have trials of every kind!  But as Paul learned, God’s grace is truly sufficient.  It is the only leak stopper at our disposal and has been proven effective in studies for over two thousand years now. So if your cup truly runneth over, please say a prayer for us who have sprung leaks until such time as we can all be sopping wet and giddy from all the over-flowing spills from our respective cups of blessing.  Peace.

my soul cries out

 

One is the Loneliest Number…

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When God created Adam and placed him in paradise, He is recorded as saying that it was not a good thing for man to be alone.  Up until that 6th day everything He had created, He called Good. Loneliness was the very first thing God labeled as Not so good.  This was not an oversight on God’s part, or heaven forbid a divine epiphany-we’re talking about God here.  It was always the plant to create a mate for Adam to share life with, and for the most part it has remained thus through the ages. Maybe God knew that Adam needed someone to press his fig leaves or dress the wild catch of the day for dinner.  Or perhaps, He simply knew that human connection was an integral part of the grand design.

We live in a society of lonely people.  They are all around us in plain sight yet hidden from us.  They may hide behind smiles and activity, bar-hopping, social media and yes, even church involvement.  But truth be known at the end of the day these go home to a cold and lonely dwelling where the only voices are heard over their airwaves of the television.  Because of the stigma of admitting loneliness, especially among men, they choose to remain silent and battle solitude while those closest to them are completely unaware.  Loneliness is a major factor in depression.  Feelings of irrelevance, isolation, despair, worthlessness-all symptoms and results of one who suddenly finds themselves alone.

Many in bad relationships long for the day they could have total freedom without answering to anyone-the ultimate bachelor.  But even those who relish the thought and through unexpected circumstances get their wish, find that the novelty wears off when they go to bed night after night by themselves and wake to mornings the same way.  It can be a vicious cycle and get old very quickly.

I find it ironic that in an age of social media where people are connecting with friends they haven’t seen in years, social media plays such a large role in loneliness.  Even with FaceTime and Skype, personal interaction is becoming a lost art.  Business calls are replaced with emails.  Sales meetings have been replaced with much cheaper video conferences.  Even dating clubs for singles have fallen to sites like Match, Christian Mingle or OurTime.  Land lines are now obsolete-greeting cards requiring thought and postage are slowly being phased out by e-cards. I even have to check  my own groceries at most stores where clerks are now computer kiosks. And dare I even suggest that church attendance is now a choice of getting up and going to a gathering place or watching a live stream from the convenience of your own living room. We are being systematically screwed by a technical age that is turning us all into mindless loners with no social skills or personal interaction.  I may have introverted tendencies but being alone is not my preferred way to live life.

Right about here is where I would normally list scriptures that give us hope and encouragement for the topic of the post, and with this topic there is certainly much the Bible has to offer. But sometimes a Bible verse is not the best remedy.  Yes, I know, Amy Grant caught hell for saying that back in the day, but she was right.  Even the Word asks us what good it does to tell a person to be well without meeting their need.  I must have ten different versions of Bibles at my disposal but the human element is not present.

When I was younger the news of a house fire had little impact on me.  However in 1994 I learned first hand the meaning of empathy when I lost everything in a fire.  Now when I see news of a fire my heart goes out because I’ve been there.  If you’ve ever been alone you know how others feel, the despondency and everything associated with isolation. It is through empathy that we connect and offer healing to those who travel where our feet have been previously.  You don’t have to look far to find lonely people-bars, nursing homes, orphanages, even Facebook. A visit, a beer, a baseball game, a phone call goes a long way in helping others who would otherwise have little or no connection to a real person.  Yes, in Christ we have “a friend who sticks closer to us than a brother“, but flesh and bones are preferred. Ask God to allow you to see others as He does so that you can be aware of those you can help.

my soul cries out

Job’s Story: Restored But Scarred

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I am convinced that the unknown author of the Biblical book of Job simply got the name wrong; surely it’s the Book of Joe. The similarities are to striking to be coincidental, the lessons taught touching nerves that cause us to wince.  Perhaps you can relate. Maybe you believe it should be the Book of Steve or the Book of Cathy because you know too well the pain of living from one calamity to another, waiting on answers that never come, believing for miracles that never come to fruition.

The recording of Job is one of the great mysteries of the faith and one that most of us if honest really struggle with.  It’s tantamount to asking your dad “why” only to hear him respond, “because I said so”.  We in our selfish nature want to attach to this story our understanding of justice and fairness.  Our finite comprehension of God wants to ask the same questions Job’s friends did.  We who read carefully want to inquire of God why it is the He pointed out Job to satan and why He removed His hand of protection from a man that the Bible describes as the most righteous man in all the earth at the time. Surely if Job was not spared what chance do we stand who would hardly be labeled as righteous?  Why must rain fall on both the just and the unjust? Aren’t we supposed to be blessed as believers-to be highly favored and to prosper in all we do?  Isn’t the Word of God unchanging and His promises unbreakable? Or is the hedge of protection around us only so high?  Why must believers suffer great losses here on earth if we are attempting to walk upright before God?  Age-old and still unanswered questions that have always been and will always be.

The story of Job is one that most of us have heard or read so many times that we feel we could tell it ourselves.  It is always preached the same as if the sermon is simply a boilerplate template from Sermons Du Jour that any seminary grad student has access to. But there are aspects to this story when digging deeper that you never hear taught from the pulpit.  One is simply an oversight, that of Job’s wife.  Those who mention her do so with contempt as the devil’s advocate without considering her plight.  For instance, the ten children Job lost, she bore, and a mother’s grief is unbearable. She shared in Job’s wealth so she too suffered in his losses. And when she had lost all her children and her financial stability she alone was left to take care of a husband who was sick and helpless.  Yes she spoke out in anger at a low point in her life, and so have I-many times.  But she remained and endured and is seldom credited for her faithfulness to her husband “in sickness and health, good times and bad”. Much more could be written in her defense.

But while reading the story again, as I often find myself doing during those times when I can relate, I saw something I missed the first hundred times I read the story, something obvious but not noticed before. When Job’s life is preached we usually hear the same outline, Job good, satan bad, Job loses everything, Job repents, God restores Job double for his losses.  The implication is that faithfulness in God always pays off in the end and that everything lost will be restored many times over.  It makes for a feel good Osteen-esque sermon, even though we still can’t get past the human response to question God’s purpose in picking on such a godly man. But this is what I missed and what I want to share in case you missed it as well. Job did not emerge from this fierce Heavenly tug of war without serious permanent scars and painful reminders of his season of loss and torment. First there is the consideration of his physical affliction.  Scripture says that upon satan’s appeal God allowed him to attack Job’s body.  It is recorded that Job was suffering from painful boils from the soles of his feet to the crown of his head.  It also says that Job tried to escape the agony by scraping these boils.  I would never interject what the Bible leaves out, but we do have knowledge of boils through modern medicine and from this we can deduce that these boils, just as they do now, left permanent scars, especially given the fact that Job scraped these, a definite no-no in any modern medical journal because doing so increases scarring. In reading of God’s restoration of Job in chapter 42, no mention is made of Job’s physical healing.  We can assume in time his health was restored but the Bible is silent so we can only apply what we know of these boils now-painful with permanent scarring.  If so, every time Job looked in a mirror he would have been reminded of his epic battle with satan. And if like me many of the same feelings and questions would have surfaced and Job would have to remind himself each and every time of God’s faithfulness.

While Job’s physical state is left somewhat to speculation, there is something else I noticed that is right there as plain as day-something else that would have served as a painful memorial to Job’s battle.  Scripture records that everything Job lost was restored two fold, and that he was even blessed with ten more children, the daughters being described as beautiful beyond belief. But Job is recorded as living another one hundred and forty years after his season of testing.  Here is what I missed.

Everyday for one hundred and forty years Job had to walk past the graves of his first ten children.

We are given a glimpse as to how dearly Job loved his kids.  We know they were adults so Job was a part of their lives for many years and they were a big part of his. We know Job considered their welfare so much that he offered up sacrifices for their sins so God would have mercy upon them in case they stepped out of line with Him. As we read how the story unfolds each messenger comes and relays to Job how his oxen and donkeys were stolen and his servants killed, how his sheep were wiped out by a fire from heaven, how his camels were stolen and those servants also killed, all with  no response from Job. It is only after the last messenger tells Job that his children all perished when their house caved in on them that we read Job became distraught, tore his robe, shaved his head and fell to the ground in grief. It is apparent that Job’s greatest and most unbearable loss was the death of his sons and daughters.

Decorating the graves of our loved ones is a tradition.  Even knowing our loved one is with the Lord we are compelled to visit the place where we laid the shell to rest and to remember the life and reflect on the earthly absence in somber remembrance. Most likely Job’s children were all buried on his property with stone markers that would be evident from a long distance and I would imagine Job would have been compelled to visit, decorate and remember, just as we do today.  Yes Job was restored and his faithful wife was blessed to give birth to ten more children (blessed? that would make 20 natural births). But those who have lost children or spouses are painfully aware that no number of children or any blessing of a new mate will ever erase the memory of those you loved and lost. Through photos, memories and grave stones they exist forever.

Job’s earthly restoration was miraculous and generous, but not complete. He was left with scars, battle wounds and constant reminders of his testing and lived with them for another one hundred and forty years. To be honest I have never liked the story of Job, primarily because I have a hard time getting past my selfish arrogance in questioning God’s fairness and purpose with my finite comprehension. I don’t like or relish the thought of being the battleground God uses to prove a point to satan.  I want to grow in the knowledge of Christ but without the pain that accompanies the testing and refining process. I don’t want my friends looking upon me with pity.  I want to be the one who raises other’s spirits, the life of the party, the happy-go-lucky person with the Teflon persona that nothing sticks to. My desire is to be that person who is blessed on earth by a wealthy God who spoils me with goodness that the preacher describes in his false teaching of prosperity by works. But that is not my life and it’s probably not yours either.

Scripture is clear that we will each be rewarded in a heavenly kingdom.  We are told to lay up for ourselves treasure in Heaven.  We are told that our good deeds are credited to a heavenly account. All indications are that we must live life and endure trials, hardships and losses here on earth without any guarantee of a Job like restoration. We will go through periods, seasons and for some lifetimes of silence from a God we have to trust in the darkest of times and the fiercest of storms. We sometimes have to navigate life when we can’t see our hand in front of our face and can only take one step forward at a time when the winds are blowing directly against us. We have to pray when there are no words, study when there is little desire and believe when all indicators suggest not to. If there was a magic potion or spell to make this process we all face easier, I’d own the world. God knows our doubts, sees our struggles with faith, hears our non-verbal prayers and feels our distress. I wish I couldn’t write these words from personal trials and seasons of my own doubt, but I can and I do. When tears no longer come, when the pain is so intense it causes numbness, when all hope and light seems to have vanquished from your world, God remains.

Just one more observation from this story, one which supports the notion of a heavenly reward and eternal afterlife. Job received back double for all his losses, except his children.  He lost ten but was only blessed with ten, not twenty.  Did God oops?  No. Job realized that portion of his restoration when he was reunited with them in paradise.  God didn’t forget or short change Job, and He won’t forget us even when we are tempted to give in to our own disbelief. We have no other recourse. It has to be so.

 

 

 

 

My Fig Leaves

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Now that I have your attention…in publishing my blog my objective has always been to be transparent in confessing personal faults, failures, challenges, etc. so that maybe one or two readers might be spared the pain of learning lessons others have already benefited from. Some weeks are more difficult to post than others depending on the subject matter or the freshness of the wounds or hurt.  This may be one of those weeks.

We all have heard the story countless times.  God tells Adam to stay away from just one tree but instead he yields to a tempting Eve and disobeys a directive meant for his benefit.  Genesis 3 reads that Adam and Eve became aware of their nakedness and sewed together fig leaves to cover their exposure.  But then something deeper happens that we often overlook.  When God is calling Adam out of the garden Adam’s reply is that they were afraid and hid so that God would not see that they were naked.  However, Adam and Eve had already created and were in fact wearing their fig garments when they heard God’s voice.  So we must ask if Adam was afraid of exposing his genitalia or was he hiding something much deeper?

The fig leaf has always been used figuratively as symbolic of covering something up that may be distasteful or embarrassing. In more recent times the fig leaf is used metaphorically as an attempt to cover up something that is only a token gesture as the object being covered is still obvious and for the most part exposed. Fig leaves can be as long as ten inches and as wide as six inches.  However when they are cut from the tree they exude a sticky gel like substance that can be quite uncomfortable when coming in direct contact with skin.  To go to the lengths of covering up one’s “nakedness” with something so uncomfortable must somehow relay the desperation of attempting to hide something really ugly or shameful.

I am a shirt guy.  I buy shirts like women buy shoes. I have easily 200 shirts in various closets.  I’m a shirt whore. But I also have some fig leaves that I wear in certain situations so that my faults and failures are not overly exposed.  Allow me to explain. The mother of my sons and I divorced in 1996.  Say what you may about the reasons that led up to that painful decision, the divorce for me represented a failure-something I lost control of and did not cultivate enough to save.  It was perhaps my first fig leaf.

I have been blessed with three young men as sons who are unique and individual whom I love dearly.  But I was not a great father. I worked too much, I was absent for certain events, I didn’t spend nearly enough quality time with them, and I could go on.

Three fig leaves.

I was blessed with an opportunity to own my own business but in less than two years was forced to give it back to the creditors because of fierce industry competition and mismanagement on my part.  I am still paying the price for that failure and increasing my fig leaf wardrobe. Through obstacles and life challenges I have not handled well I have developed or rather allowed to surface a deep resentment, a sometimes bitter attitude, an unexplainable anger and deep feelings of frustration and doubt even when trying to rely on my faith in God’s grace and strength as my only recourse. Yet another fig leaf.  I could relay many similar stories of past mistakes, miscues and missteps that have added to my hidden fig leaf closet. I have much to hide, much that I fear admitting to the world and much I am ashamed of for fear of being exposed. My loins, my legs and most of my torso are covered in unseen fig leaves.

When God called out to Adam He knew exactly where he was hiding and why.  And as Adam had tasted of the tree of he Knowledge of Good and Evil, he most likely knew God was on to him.  Any attempt to cover his nakedness before God was futile.  It was just a token gesture of modesty before a God who sees everything beneath.

Jeremiah 23:24; “Can a man hide himself in hiding places so I don’t see him?  Do I not fill the heavens and the earth?”

Hebrews 4:13: “There is no creature hidden from His sight but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do.”

God knows us inside and out, our fears, our lusts, our hurts, our doubts-nothing remains hidden from Him.  Any attempt to cover ourselves is futile.  But perhaps what is more significant is the thought process or reasoning behind our fear of being exposed to Him. Through the sacrifice of His Son and the dispensation of unending grace through our belief in the same we are set free from the chains of guilt and shame of our shortcomings.  While our approach should be one of humble reverence and confession, our lifestyle should not resemble sackcloth and ashes, or sticky fig leaves.

“Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God”…Romans 5:1

“My grace is sufficient for you and my power made perfect in your weakness. Therefore I will boast all the more gladly (and not hide behind fig leaves) about my weakness so that Christ’s power may rest on me”. 2 Corinthians 12:9.

Some of us may be in a season where we are not only covered in fig leaves but are hiding in the belly of a dark cave.  We may be facing questions with no answers, situations with no solutions and a future where we can’t see any ray of light because of present darkness. The tears may be uncontrollable, or you may have few left. The intangible faith in an unseen God may be a real struggle for some, but the hope and the promises of a loving and merciful God can not be withheld from us even when we hide.  Clothing  trends may come and go but fig leaves have never been fashionable.  Be clothed instead in grace and mercy, an ensemble that all believers share and is never out of style.

 

 

 

The Common Threads That Connect Us

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Over the past several months I have become increasingly downhearted in observing the numerous attempts to divide people according to applied false labels, and our willingness to play into these social attacks and methods.  It is even more discouraging to witness this among believers in Christ, who have redirected passions and responded like a bad Pavlov experiment.  The world would have us separated by skin color, political ideology, religion, sexual preference, income level, education level and so on.  Yet even the faithful have shown a tendency to view each other based on denomination, who they voted for and which sin they adopt as their personal cause.  Why do we of all people play into this devilish scheme designed for our own demise?

Many have asserted that regardless of our state we all bleed red, but the common threads among us are much more than physiological. In fact if you would just take a minute to consider the human experience you should see quite clearly that there are relative few things that we don’t share in common.  I am so weary of the way that social media has been used to build walls instead of bridges that I wanted to take this post and share a different perspective that some may be completely disregarding when they consider others.  These are just a few things we all desire, cherish or fear.

I vividly remember the first time I fell in love.  Don’t you? It was daisies in Spring, butterflies in the stomach and a rush whenever that special person came around.  Is that feeling different if a person is black or white? Christian or atheist? Conservative or liberal? I doubt it.  We all long to be loved and in love! There resides within most of us the need for companionship that transcends labels or diversity.  Love is universal.

Just as fresh in my memory, the first time my heart was broken.  The pain was real, the disappointment devastating. I was sure no one in the world had ever felt hurt the way I was feeling it.  And you? Have you ever lost weight because you couldn’t eat due to a broken heart?  Ever felt your world as you knew it had ended? Just wanted to hide? Yep, me too.  We are much the same when it comes to healthy or broken relationships.

I have three natural children, three step-children and six grandchildren.  They are my pride and joy.  I admittedly was not the best father but I always wanted what was best for them and did everything I could to protect them.  I show off pictures of my grandchildren to anyone who will look just because I am so proud to be their lucky papa.  How about you?  Do you have a collection of framed pictures in your house of your kids?  Any albums on your cell phone for quick reference?  Do you worry about them, make every attempt to be at their school events, spoil them to the displeasure of their parents? Yep, a common thread.

Do you have dreams few know of?  I always wanted to play in the NBA but wasn’t even good enough for a college scholarship. Later I wanted to write at least one book and be a noted author.  That dream may still happen some day. I have written numerous songs in hopes of just one of them becoming a hit.  Have you any dreams?  Have you reached for something and fell short?  Do you still possess certain aspirations, a bucket list if you will of things you want to accomplish while you still can? Do you ever wonder if you will really amount to anything worthy of recognition?  Same here!  It’s a big boat we share.

What are your biggest fears? one of mine is that of wasted opportunities.  What am I doing with my life?  What am I leaving behind of value for my kids, what trail markers, directional signs, danger warnings? Will my boys want to emulate my life or steer clear of any resemblance of it?  And what of my friends? Am I the one they enjoy hanging around or do they avoid me because my countenance is deflating and a killjoy? Am I making a difference to anyone?  I have to imagine that if we are all honest we all share a similar sentiment-we want to be welcomed and liked as a positive influence and we want to be respected for living according to our core beliefs in a way that is contagious. Another common thread.

Have you ever lost a loved one to death, a parent, grandparent, spouse? Have you cried until there are no more tears to cry at the thought of never seeing them again in this life? Do you think mourning is shared between us?  Can you sympathize with someone else who has experienced such a devastating loss?  Does anyone think it hurts less for a Democrat or Republican or independent?  Catholic or Jew?  Do Americans mourn differently than say Asians or Hindus or native tribes people?

And how about this one-as believers in Christ who look forward to gathering with others who share our faith we experience those times when we need it most the presence of the spirit of God that moves us to tears in acknowledgment of who we are to Him.  None of us, whether you have a seminary degree or are just a layperson can fully comprehend the magnitude of love our Father shows each of us in a unique yet common fashion, simply because we have confessed Christ as our Lord.  Our outward expression may certainly differ-oh how it differs!  You may kneel and weep, you may stand with lifted hands-maybe you shout and dance a little like David, but the differing responses are due to a common thread, the presence of God’s spirit that runs through each of us and ties us all together in an eternal bond as brothers and sisters of the same hope and same kingdom.

We have all heard or even quoted this famous passage from Galatians 3, yet I have to wonder if we all view it the same way when I observe the divisions among us:

“…for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. So now there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave or free, nor is there male or female for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If we belong to Christ we are all Adam’s seed and joint heirs according to the promise”.

Common threads!  Eternal threads! All woven together into one glorious loom, Christ. I love old hymns, and there is one in particular that is seldom heard these days but the message of which is entirely appropriate.  The lyrics of Blest be the Tie That Binds are as follows:

Blest be the tie that binds-Our hearts in Christian Love

The fellowship of kindred minds-Is like to that above.

Before our Father’s throne-We pour our ardent prayers

Our fears, our hopes our aims are one-Our comforts and our cares

We share our mutual woes,-our mutual burdens bear

And often for each other flows-the sympathizing tear

When we asunder part-It give us inward pain

But we shall still be joined in heart

And hope to meet again.

Common threads, ties that bind, eternal kinship, may parts of one body-these are the things that should pull us together in a holy bond of love, recognizing uniqueness of tastes, talents and purpose but wholly integrated into one woven masterpiece that should be the envy of others who “want in”. I don’t know if our product is one the world desires in it’s present state.  I think we can do better-I think I can do better. I want to be the purple thread that is easily seen because of the brilliant orange and bright green threads next to me that highlight different shades by pulling them all tightly together into a colorless work of art.

I want to make it my personal aim to not be party to any attempt to label, degrade or divide us against each other.  If you feel the same, there is but another common thread we share.

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

If God, Why Evil and Suffering?

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A young officer just recently promoted to detective is hit head on while leaving the courthouse, leaving behind a wife and four-year old daughter. A newlywed couple are tragically killed in a collision on their way to their honeymoon. A young bride full of faith dies a slow chronicled death to a cancer that gripped her body and wouldn’t let go in spite of thousands of prayers on her behalf. A nameless lady across the globe is violently and publically raped and beheaded because she would not deny her faith in Christ. Children with cancer, people dying of starvation, innocent victims of horrible crimes, the deaths of saints-the question that agnostics have posed for centuries and the question believers today fear most. If God is one of love and justice, why do seemingly innocent people suffer?

If you are reading this hoping I have the answer, you may as well stop reading now. I have studied, heard sermons, read articles and even searched scripture in my own quest to find my answer to this age old question but to date no one has adequately been able to answer the question as to the dichotomy of suffering and evil under the sovereignty of a loving God.  Even Christ would not directly answer this when He was questioned about it in Luke 13. A tower in Siloam collapsed killing eighteen people who were simply at the wrong place at the wrong time. Jesus did not reply with why innocent blood was shed but rather impressed upon those who questioned Him the importance of living a life of repentance and preparation.  There are those today who when asked about evil and suffering offer up the same handed down answers the church has always put forth-God’s ways are higher than ours, or it’s a sin issue, or God is sovereign and we just have to accept it.  Perhaps these are the only real responses to the ultimate question, but it remains a weak apologetic argument when posed by those agnostic to the faith who would accuse us of a blind allegiance to a deity we can’t fully grasp or explain. Are they right?

I’ve wrestled with this in my own spiritual experience. Why me? What next? What have I done? Where is God or what purpose is served in this situation?  Why teach me these lessons and not the next guy?  In my Jim Carey voice, Aren’t I the Lucky One! Within the confines of a limited view I have tried to find an answer. This is the best I can come up with.

Why would God create a world where evil was existent? That answer is easy-He didn’t! God’s world was perfect, innocent, harmless, sufficient. Food was provided for man and animals alike from the vegetables and herbs.  All creation lived in peace and harmony. But God wanted his creation, man, to love Him, not from default programming but from choice, a conscious decision to do so. For that to happen God had to allow man the option to choose-free moral agency.  Consequently as with any choice the potential to choose wrongly exists. A serpent agnostic to God, the embodiment of evil, presented Eve with a choice. Eve chose of her own volition to go against the commands of God, took the forbidden fruit, persuaded Adam to do likewise and ushered in the element of disobedience and separation from God. It is this separation, the void, wherein evil resides. At that point pain entered into the world as Eve would bear children in great discomfort. Death entered as God said to dust they would return. Animals began to prey on each other. The knowledge of good created the possibility of evil just as the existence of light created the possibility of darkness.

To fully understand this concept one must understand and define evil. In the simplest of terms, evil is not a thing but a void. Cold is not a definable existence but rather a lack of heat. As above, darkness is not a natural thing but a lack of light. You don’t really make a room dark, you simply make it less lit which leaves the natural state of darkness. Likewise evil is presented even by the earliest attempts of definition as a void of goodness, thus the natural state when all else is removed. In searching for writings that support this I ran across perhaps the best I’ve seen, written by St. Maximus the Confessor, c 73;

“Evil never was and never will be on its own, for it has exactly neither substance nor nature nor hypostasis nor power nor energy in beings; it is neither quality nor quantity; neither relation nor replace; neither time nor position; neither creation nor movement nor habit nor passion, so that it contemplated anything existent…it is neither the beginning, the middle nor the end. Evil is the absence of energy inherent in all natural power toward the end and nothing else…”.

In other words, evil is absolute nothingness, void of all natural good, empty of all moral judgment, fully and completely lacking God.  Another way of saying this is that Evil is what’s left when God is removed, the natural unconfessed state of godlessness. So, where does this leave us and how does it apply to the question at hand? At the very least it takes away our reasoning to blame God for evil. It gives us much more insight into the passage recorded in James 1:13 that says “no one should say “God is tempting me” for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He tempt anyone”. God and evil can not coexist any more than light can exist simultaneously with darkness or cold with heat. This then takes us to part two of the question; if then God is still sovereign, why does he allow suffering?

It is perhaps only at this point that any attempt to answer this adequately becomes simply conjecture. There is really no response satisfactory to human logic one can offer to which one would reply, “Oh, okay, now I get it”.  The only real approach I can come up with is to take a look at history and patterns in comparison to our limited definition of fairness and justice.  We are programmed in great error by authors of  “Blessed and Highly Favored” type books, Claim your Reward sermons and Prosperity doctrines that are in opposition to the recorded Word. While the natural, less Godly nature wants to question suffering as unfair, we really need to take a closer look at history, going back to the beginning. Abel offered up to God a pleasing sacrifice and from all accounts was a friend of God. However that did not stop Cain from taking his life, an act that we would surely deem unjust by our definition. Fast forward to Job. Scripture says there was not a man in all the world as righteous and right standing before God, yet we are fully aware of the calamity that God allowed him. Job’s questions were much like ours-why me, what did I do wrong, how is this fair? God’s famous non-answer is on record.  When we can dictate weather patterns, explain birth and create our own species, we can expect an answer.

But it doesn’t stop with Job. The perfect sinless man, the sacrificial Lamb of God, Christ bore suffering through crucifixion so severe we derive the word “excruciating” from it. No one in history was less deserving of suffering than our Lord.  More evidence, consider the Apostles who lived life with Jesus, shared stories, sat under His teaching, witnessed His miracles, His death and victorious resurrection. Defenders of the faith, seed planters of the early church, miracle workers in their own right; and all but John martyred brutally for their belief and testimony in spreading the Gospel.  Just? Fair? If our concept of blessing and favor was withheld from the saints, are we somehow more deserving of a life without pain, one affected and infected by evil? It should be just as logical to deduce that if they were not spared, why should we be?  Jesus was very clear-did not mix words when he said during the beatitudes message that those who were persecuted would be blessed, inferring persecution and suffering was eminent. He later said in John 16 that in this world we would have troubles! Yet He went on to say to “take heart because He had overcome the world”.

1 Corinthians 13:12 says ” now we see through a glass darkly; (or as a reflection in a mirror); but then we will see everything clearly”.  Matthew Henry says that it is only the light of Heaven that will remove all clouds and darkness that hide the face of God from us. Only then will we have answers to questions that at that point will be irrelevant and non-consequential. For now we must suffer those things that will be used to bring us into a closer relationship with God. For now we must receive comfort during trials that we can in turn use to comfort others who encounter the same testing. For now we must know that His strength is made perfect in our weaknesses. For now we must praise him in chains, worship Him in storms, hold fast to Him in emergencies and crisis and try with all our energy and strength to maintain the attitude of Habakkuk of old when he said in chapter 3;

“Though the fig tree doesn’t bud, there are no grapes on the vine, the olive crops fail, the fields produce no crops, though there are no sheep in the pens or cattle in the stalls, yet will I be joyful in God my Savior”.

This is as close as I can come to answering an unanswerable question.  It will have to do until I can see through the glass clearly. God bless you and grant you peace in your walk.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Great at Being Not-So-Great

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It seems I’ve spent much of my life striving to be great at one thing or another. As a young boy I was awkward and lanky so I practiced various sports and ended up on several teams, but I have no MVP or other trophies to show for it. As a newly married young adult I strived to be a good husband but the marriage failed and ended up in a divorce. I was blessed with three sons and I really wanted to be a great dad but it took me over twenty years just to learn how to be an adequate one.  I tried hard to be a great model employee throughout various careers but am familiar with the words “sorry but we have to let you go”. So I thought perhaps I’d make a better employer than employee and bought a business but that business failed and left me starting over. I have always wanted to be a great musician but I only sound okay when surrounded by truly great musicians.  I’d like to think I’m a much better grandpa than I was a dad, but if so, I am far from great.  I love writing and want to be a great blogger but you won’t find In My Own Words in the top 500 of any category. I think most of us want to believe we are great Christians but I am fully aware of my failures and shortcomings in that area of my life as well.  In summary my road to greatness is littered instead with mediocrity and failure, being efficient at many things but truly great at nothing.

As we end the old year and usher in the new many of us take this time to reflect on those things we have accomplished and those that remain in need of improvment. For some it is a welcome inventory as they have the personality to be highly motivated by goals set for self-improvement. Yet for others it is just another smack in the face reminder of just how non-great they and their lives remain as from year to year nothing appears to be any better-same income, same struggles, same habits, same mediocrity, just  new year. You wanted to lose twenty pounds but gained ten.  You wanted a raise but was instead laid off. You wanted to strengthen a relationship but see it slipping away. It is not very surprising that the beginning of the New year is ushered in with so much alcohol and partying-it deadens reality for those fearfully dreading yet another average year.

So how would one describe greatness? Would it be being the very best at something? Being highly achieved or esteemed?  Highly educated or degreed? Ranking at the top of any given corporate ladder? Having the most accolades or awards?  Although greatness is something most of us want to aspire to, our definition of greatness is a bit different than what the scriptures tell us.  In fact the greatest man to ever walk our planet showed us what His words on the subject looked like in action.  In the book of Matthew, chapter 20, the mother of James and John approached Jesus with a bold request that her two sons be awarded seats at the left and right of Jesus in his kingdom, places of the greatest honor. Of course when the other ten disciples heard of the request they became infuriated and lost their tempers, something I can relate to. So, Jesus gathered them and settled them down and taught them a hard lesson, described in the Message Bible like this: “You’ve observed how godless rulers throw their weight around, how quickly a little power goes to their heads. It’s not going to be that way with you. Whoever wants to become great must become a servant. Whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave. That is what the Son of Man has done. He came to serve, not be served-to give His life…”.  Earlier in chapter 18 Jesus held a child on His lap and told them that whoever would  humble themselves like the child would be great in the Kingdom of Heaven.  Humility, meekness, servant, slave-not words we would find in any dictionary associated with greatness but that is the way it is with the Christian faith. The things we would achieve often require the exact opposite actions our world would dictate. Want to be first? Go to the end of the line.  Want to get great service?  Pick up a pitcher and fill the glasses of others. Want to be publicly acknowledged? Take a seat behind the curtains. These are lessons I am still learning on my journey to greatness.  I may never achieve that greatness here on earth in spite of my best efforts. I may never have the life or success that others would want to emulate or pattern. Few ever find the brass ring of being a pro athlete, a Grammy winning artist, a Pulitzer author or Parent of the year. I just have to believe that if we run and finish the race we are in, if we get back up when we stumble, if we help others up along the way, we will have a great reward handed to us by the greatest of all time, Christ, our example. Let it be so as we enter and embrace the challenges of a New Year.

As a caveat, I want to take a moment to thank all of you who have opted to receive this weekly blog.  My hope and prayer each week is that God gives me words through my own experiences that even one person is needing to read to help them in their situations.  It is humbling to know the expanse of readership In My Own Words receives globally. I wish you the very best God has to offer you in 2017.

Much love and prayer, Joe Hill

 

 

The Simplicity of the First Christmas

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It has become part of the holiday tradition, finding the perfect gift and then the perfect wrapping paper.  Gift wrapping is an art to some, a science to others.  Some spend as much time looking for just the right paper as they do the gift.  Of course with paper comes the right coordinated ribbon, bows and for the really serious wrapper, silk flowers or other accessories.  And when we present that gift with all it’s adornment we expect to hear how lovely the wrapping job is, almost as much as we want to receive appreciation for what’s inside.

I recall when the boys were much younger and even now with grandkids how the fun of watching them open our presents was temporarily sidetracked as they tore off the paper and played with it as if it were the present.  Even our pets got a bigger thrill out of the paper than what the paper covered.  In many ways this is us at Christmas time. We become so engaged in the “wrappings” of Christmas, the parties, the shopping, the decorating, the shows and concerts-all the traditions that surround the actual gift, the reason we stop and commemorate, that many of us discard the gift with the paper and completely miss out on the intended present, the Child born unto us.

When we read the accounts of the first Christmas in the books of Matthew and Luke many details are left out of the story.  For instance, we don’t know for sure if Christ was born in a stable or a cave dwelling or a lower level of a home.  We don’t know much about the shepherds.  We aren’t exact on the date of His birth.  We aren’t really told how many magi traveled to see Jesus or when they actually showed up. Hollywood producers have used artistic license to fill in the blanks for us to make movies more marketable and all of us have a sense of what the real scene may have been like, but the truth is these details were kept from us.  Why? Because we get too caught up in the wrapping!  We want to know things that have little significance in light of the real event and its purpose. Even within our worship we tend to seek approval for our church production or our operatic performance of Oh Holy Night when all the glory and attention is to be focused on the gift.

The first Christmas was incomprehensibly simple. In the beginning, Christ was.  He created all that is created.  We messed it up as we always do.  We needed a perfect sacrifice in order to be reconciled to God the Father.  Christ put off his glory, His Kingship and became flesh, His creation so that as a man he could die as a man once and for all.  His coming was proclaimed as great tidings for ALL people. In one selfless act He became our King, our redeemer, our eternal bridegroom. God loved the world so much He gave us the perfect gift sans the trappings and distractions that would make us glory in the surroundings but lose sight of the gift. One Holy Night, one perfect sinless child, one act of unmatched love, one eternal hope.  That is as simple as it can be if we would but accept it as it was intended.

In a world of hate and bigotry and finger pointing it would serve us all well to revisit Bethlehem and insert ourselves into the story as humble observers of a blessed event that would change mankind forever; to feel and see the love, to hear Heaven sing and to experience the forever healing and completion of our souls. Peace on earth, good will to all men, all ethnicities, all countries, all religions.  I wish you the very best this Christmas season with a prayer that you will not miss the gift because of the wrappings, and that you will find it in your heart to carry this good will to all those you encounter in the coming year.

 

 

Grandma’s Shiny Christmas Pin

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When I was but a boy I delivered flyers for a local grocery store in Indianapolis-I was paid a penny per flyer.  I made about $3.00 per week and loved doing it. On most weeks I would take some of my money to Long’s Bakery where I could buy second day donuts for half price as my reward.  The grocer is long gone but the bakery remains. However, whenever Christmas rolled around I looked forward to taking my two or three dollars to the local G. C. Murphy or Kresge store to buy my grandmother a shiny colored pin for Christmas.  She loved her collection of costume pins and wore them to church each Sunday. These stores would have tables of little white boxes each containing a different pin they brought in just for Christmas.  I would be in there for hours picking out just the right pin for her.  The funny thing, it didn’t really matter which one I selected-she would love it just the same.

At age fifty-five this remains one of my favorite Christmas memories.  It was a simplistic time, the pride of buying a gift for my grandma with money I earned, the thrill of the search for the perfect pin, the joy of giving it to her on Christmas Eve and the love she showed when opening it.  I could have given her a purple hippo pin with orange ears-she would have never said a word but would have loved it and worn it proudly.  In my grandmother’s eyes, I could do no wrong.  Simple, loving, cherished, pure!  How times have changed.

I’m all grown up now.  I live in a world where acceptance and approval is sometime difficult to acquire. It’s almost as if our lives are lived as an obstacle course full of hazards and opportunities for failure, lined along the way with our share of naysayers telling us we didn’t study hard enough, we didn’t work hard enough, we haven’t earned enough, we haven’t given enough, we haven’t loved enough. And all along the course we are looking for grandma in the crowd to give her unconditional approval but she’s long since gone to her reward and no one really cares for our shiny pins anymore.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed at Christmas time.  The intensity of the season serves as a natural amplifier for all emotions and feelings, good or bad.  For the lucky ones whose lives are balanced and in order Christmas is a magical time where love and hope abounds in volume. But for those who have been beaten down by failure, by rejection, by battles unknown to others, Christmas can be a lonely, dark and empty time that only reveals to us the desperation of our current state.

It is during this season that we are compelled to look beyond what Christmas may have become and instead consider the divine purpose of the Holy Incarnation of that special night when God became flesh to show us an unconditional Grandma type love that would lead to us being called children of God. The arrival of that baby Christ-child was not trumpeted in the courts of kings or revealed to the religious leaders and holy men.  It was instead heralded to the lowliest of the low, the shepherds, society’s outcast, those whose lives were expendable, unwanted, invisible. Christ came to give all men equal status and acceptance into a new kingdom where worth and value are not placed on income levels, educational degrees or corporate titles, but rather on who you know, specifically, Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God. When we come before Christ and lay down our lives in surrender and sacrifice with all our sins, our failures, our bad decisions, our regrets He doesn’t look upon the darkness of our status or see the obvious soil on our robes.  He sees shiny Christmas pins, full of color, sparkling in the light as if they were Lennox or Swarovski crystal. We are received and set at the same table next to kings and royalty as VIP guests of the highest honor with full access and privilege to the King of all kings, the Christ, now wearing our shiny pins as His badges of honor.

My grandmother has been gone almost twenty years now and I still miss her at Christmas.

 

 

 

 

The Dark Side of Hearts Day

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December 26th-shelves filled with Christmas products just the day before have been reduced to a single 50% off Clearance aisle.  In their place, the newest assortment of red heart-shaped boxes, stuffed furry animals and oversized cards, the annual commercial tribute to Valentine’s Day. And although given almost two full months to select the perfect gift, most will wait until just days before, some out of true love and others mere obligation. The Valentine’s Day holiday is a thirteen billion dollar annual event (that’s $13,000,000,000.00). More than 180 million cards will be exchanged, 480 million roses and more chocolate than any of us need. Ironically, while it’s the best time for a man to buy that card once a year that says the things he can’t articulate, one study says 85%of these cards are actually purchased by women.

While many joke that the day was created by Hallmark, it’s romantic roots can be traced back to a 13th century poet named Chaucer who in essence wrote that all creation comes together in love and harmony, etc. etc. etc.  Simply stated, it is a dedicated day each year that gives most an opportunity to freely express or reaffirm their love for their significant other, accompanied by many passed down traditions and gestures.  In Europe for instance some still exchange Valentines Day keys that signify an invitation to unlock the heart of their lover. But sadly for just as many, this day only serves as a reminder that the locks to the hearts of their special love have been changed and their keys no longer work.  A day that brings joy to those in love brings severe pain and isolation to those who bear the scars of broken hearts.

Statistics may not prove that suicide rates are higher on Valentine’s Day than on others but many studies support that depression brought on by broken relationships is a leading trigger for suicide attempts. When asked of those who survived such attempts, they responded that they didn’t necessarily want to die, they just simply had no reason to live. I can speak from past experience-there is no greater pain than to love someone with all your heart only to know they no longer love you in return. The feelings of loss, hopelessness and loneliness resulting from a severed relationship are no different than those feelings of mourning the sudden death of a loved one.  All of us, if breathing, have experienced it at least once in our lives.  The brave dare to love again, some more than a few times, but others shy away from the vulnerability necessary to love again for fear of the possibility of yet another broken heart already scarred by past loves and the pain associated with it that can bring even the strongest to their knees and turn their world upside down.

I wish I could offer words of healing or a fix-all solution for a quick recovery for those who feel the sting of rejection while witnessing others exchange their flowers and chocolates on this day of love.  If I could I wouldn’t be writing a blog post but a multi-million copy best-seller.  The pain of rejected love can be found in the earliest recorded writings in existence. It is a timeless tragedy that all will eventually suffer.  Some may bring calamity upon their love due to their own indiscretions-some due to apathy or just being oblivious to symptoms of trouble, and others will simply be innocent victims of a heart gone astray. Whatever the reason, the euphoric feelings that many celebrate on Valentine’s Day are the daggers that re-wound broken hearts haunted by abandonment and rejection and lingering memories of past loves that play over in their minds like an old movie projector with no Off switch.

If there are words of hope to offer, they must be found in Holy scripture.  I know that curling up with your Bible on a lonely night may seem to offer little in the way of comfort or companionship but there are words that can serve as a salve to help ease pain until such time as the heart can begin to recover.  Here are but a few to consider;

Psalm 34:18; The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.

Psalm 147:3; He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.

Psalm 73:26; My flesh and heart may fail but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

1 Corinthians 13:7; …love endures all things

2 Corinthians 12:9; My grace is sufficient for you and my power made perfect in your weakness.

Lamentations 3:22; The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, His mercies never come to an end.

Til death do us part…”. Apparently some die more than once in their lifetime.

For better of for worse…”. And some must be beyond “worse”.

Time is the universal healer of brokenness and Christ is the accelerator of the healing process. The feelings of loneliness felt by widows, divorcees and others on Valentine’s Day are natural and can’t be avoided without crawling into a hole and coming out when the stores start stocking for Easter. But there is no reason to feel totally unloved or uncared for.  There is another simple verse that reminds us if we will take heed…

cast all your cares on Him for He truly cares for you..

I’m Truly Sorry

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A famous Pop artist once wrote a hit song entitled Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word. When offered up in genuine humility and remorse it can be a difficult word to cough up.  When withheld due to pride it can be the cancer that costs us the very things or people we hold most dear.  And if pondered too long it won’t bring the onlyremedy that will heal us.

Speaking purely from a man’s perspective-well, we can be pig headed at times and downright oblivious at others. We are often given way too much credit for being clairvoyant or all knowing.  Sometimes the pain we cause is immediately apparent but sometimes we simply have no clue until it’s too late. And while a sincere apology goes a long way in eventual forgiveness, the damage done is sometimes irreversible.

The best grandpas often times were not the best dads, as was the case with me.  It took years of mistakes and miscues as a father to learn how to be a beloved Papa.  The years spent in error as a dad can not be recaptured.  Grandchildren become the benefactors of a life long learning process full of blunders they never know of. Smart men take full advantage of this second chance and relish in the perceived image that we know is not always fully disclosed.

The best spouses were not born that way. It comes with years of trial and many errors, grace and forgiveness, humility and servanthood and selflessness that few possess, least of all me. The simple words “I’m Sorry” spoken in sincerity are the best remedies for damage control in any committed relationship, as well as a good sense of timing. Great men master this process quickly in their relationships-good men take a little longer but eventually get it right before it’s too late. Foolish men sadly never acquire the skill before differences become irreconcilable, and only after they are left alone with their thoughts do they realize that indeed, they are truly sorry.

The Apostle Paul showed us that even he, the author of the majority of our New Testament, didn’t always get things right.  He openly confessed that he didn’t do the things he knew he should do, and often did the things he knew he shouldn’t, referring to his acts as despicable. Sometimes we are held to such unattainable standards that failure is eminent. In Christ there is grace, patience and forgiveness but in life we are sometimes left sitting in the ashes. The sooner we can grasp the concept of humility and remorse the sooner we can reduce the collateral damage left behind otherwise.

Jesus taught us in His prayer that asking for forgiveness should be a part of every prayer.  The notion that our grace covering eliminates our need to have a humble and contrite spirit when approaching Him is simply bad teaching.  This same principle of humility and self-awareness of our actions will also serve us well in every day life.  You can stand on false principle and withhold your apologies when they are deeply needed the most, or, you can spend the rest of your life apologizing to people who are no longer around to hear.  It’s your choice-choose wisely.

 

Blessed Art Thou Among….Men?

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Even if you were not raised Catholic you are most likely aware of the Hail Mary prayer, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.  Blessed art thou among women…” The Christmas story centers largely around Mary, the Theotokos, the Mother of Jesus, as it should. The virgin birth of our savior is a key element of our faith and belief. But little attention is given to Joseph the man charged with being the earthly father and protector of young Jesus.  The New Testament doesn’t mention Joseph again after Jesus debuts in the temple as a young boy.  The Western church gives him little attention while the Catholic and Orthodox churches venerated him as a Saint. Joseph holds a very unique place in the story of the Incarnate birth, one that is rarely mentioned or considered, a privilege that is hard to fathom.

The Gospels record that Joseph was commissioned by an angel to take charge of young Mary.  The two of them make their journey to Bethlehem while Mary is in her last stages of pregnancy.  On that night in the holding area for livestock Mary gives birth to Jesus. There is no recording of anyone being present with her except Joseph.  So what special privilege does Joseph hold that no other human can boast?  Having witnessed the birth of all my sons and my granddaughter and understanding the birthing process, there can only be one conclusion.  As he is the only one present to assist Mary with her birth, it is Joseph who is the first to behold baby Jesus as He enters into our globe, and it is Joseph who is the first to touch and hold our incarnate savior before he presents Him to Mary. Wow! Scripture records that the angel told Mary she was highly favored, but that same favor must have surely rested upon Joseph as well as his was the first human encounter with the eternal lamb.

Each Christmas I try to imagine the story from the perspective of some of the other characters mentioned in scripture.  However, I’m not sure how one could adequately capture the emotions of the realization through the Holy Spirit that you are holding in your hands your own creator and creator of the universe.  Did Joseph swell up with joy, did he cringe at the thought of being God’s earthy protector? Did he have a clue to the mission and divine plan set into place by this birth?  One can only speculate.

Little else is recorded about Joseph in scripture.  We know that he is not present at the wedding in Canaan. Nor is he present at the crucifixion.  Had he been alive it would have been his responsibility to take custody of the body of Christ and arrange the burial, but that wasn’t the case.  The fifth century apocryphal biography of Joseph gives us some interesting clues as to the life of Joseph that answers questions the story poses. The biography lists the birth of Joseph as being 90 B.C. and his death about 18 A.D. These dates throw a curve into our western perception of a young couple in Bethlehem as often depicted in our nativities, but largely supports what the absence of scripture may suggest. These dates would make Joseph ninety years old when betrothed to Mary, and he would have died at the age of well over one hundred years, before Jesus enters into His ministry. The biography records Joseph as being a widow with children, which would account for the step siblings of Jesus. It is not recorded that Joseph and Mary had any children. This too is important in the theology that Mary was a perpetual virgin. Tradition has it that Joseph died near or in the arms of Jesus and Mary, and in the ministry of heaven’s angels.

Whatever conclusion your personal research may lead you to, one can’t deny the unique privilege Joseph holds in the  Christmas story. To find favor in the sight of God, to be charged with the earthly paternity of God’s Son, to be the first human eyes to behold Jesus, the first rough but blessed hands to touch and hold Him-who among us can attain such favor! There is every good reason for Joseph to be venerated as a Saint for his role in this blessed tradition we call Christmas.

Jesus Was a Child Refugee

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Matthew 2 records for us the story of how Joseph was instructed to take his wife and the child Jesus and flee to Egypt because their lives were in danger. Jesus was a child refugee.

We are in the midst of a horrifying dilemma as we witness the tragedy of families being forced from their homelands and having no place to go and no place to welcome them. Fresh off the recent attacks in Paris our first instinct is the safety and welfare of our own families.  Choosing to err on the side of preservation, Congress is being urged to close all borders and Governors are following suit, turning away families literally in mid air before they  even land. Even Franklin Graham, son of the famed Rev. Billy Graham and founder of Samaritans Purse, a charity that caters to homeless and the hungry, put out a statement that we must close our borders to anyone who may be Muslim for our own protection. But is this the proper Christian response? The answer to this polarizing question lies within the irrefutable Scriptures, and the answer will not be a popular one.

The children of Israel were refugees. They were led out of bondage, captivity, torture and many of the same circumstances that modern refugees face. While God made their way of escape, He reminded them several times that they should welcome strangers and foreigners as they too were once escapees from captivity and persecution. Exodus 22:21 reads “Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner for you too were foreigners in Egypt”.  Deuteronomy 10:19 takes it one step further, saying “love those who are foreigners”. There are at least a dozen more Old Testament verses calling on the benevolence and welcoming of foreigners and strangers.

I get it-I’ve read the arguments. “We don’t take care of our own, why should we bring in foreigners?” We have a homeless crisis of our own to contend with. There are thousands of veterans, teens and children living on the streets of our  country.  But they have always been there, and yet suddenly when faced with a potential threat, they become the face of our stand against further hospitality toward a desperate and hopeless people as if suddenly their plight has a useful purpose. Our historic and current treatment of our own under privileged population can not be used as an intelligent argument to refuse aid to families who have nothing but the clothes they are wearing, just because there may be an evil person among the thousands of helpless families, or because we have failed as a nation to provide for those we encounter every day. Two wrongs, especially in this case, certainly do not make it right.

Another argument I’ve read is that they should all just go back to where they came from.

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This is where they came from. This is why they flee. This is why they overload a refugee boat resulting in the drowning deaths of their own children.  We all recall the horrendous and heartbreaking image of the three year old little boy’s lifeless body washed up onto the shore. And yet I know it’s still hard to somehow reconcile.  What would Jesus have us to do?  Well, He actually told us, and made it pretty clear.

In a positive affirmation, Jesus placed a child on His lap and said that anyone who welcomed one of them in His name not only welcomed Him but “the One Who sent Me“. In another passage He reminds us that rue religion is taking care of widows and children. There is no qualifying criteria for whose widows or children. And in Matthew there is a much more damning story of the sheep and goats. You know the story.  He addresses those on His left when He says that whoever didn’t feed the hungry or give drink to the thirsty or clothes to the naked, or who didn’t visit the prisoners or welcome the stranger, didn’t do these things for Him as well.  Again, try as I might, I can find no qualifying criteria for strangers. Shall we go on?

Jesus also exhorted us in Matthew 5 to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Of course that doesn’t mean that if someone breaks into your home or threatens your family that you should join hands and say “let us pray”. What it does mean is that we are called to love supernaturally, above the expected or explainable conditions, just as Christ did. He said in this way the world would see that we are different. That is perhaps the most difficult task of the Christian experience, especially when faced with uncertain outcome. We can’t find this capacity for love except through Christ and not of ourselves.

There is one other facet to this whole refugee situation that no one has mentioned but that has to be considered by the followers of Christ. We tend to be a patriotic people, proud of our heritage, our ethnicity and our geographical borders. We proudly proclaim our status as Hoosiers or Buckeyes or Americans, etc., which is all fine and well, to a point. However, as believers, we are reminded, in scripture, that we are not citizens of this earth, rather our citizenship is a heavenly one. Christians are not defined by the man-made borders in which they live. One of my favorite classic Christian songs was one by Petra, entitled Not of This World. One stanza says “we are pilgrims in a strange land-we are so far from our homeland-with each passing day it seems so clear, this world will never want us here-we’re not welcomed in this world below-we are foreigners who don’t belong”. Nothing could be more true for the believer. We can’t in the faith claim allegiance or ownership of a bordered land that our souls don’t claim. It is against our core beliefs to do so.

Illegal immigration may be a deciding factor in the upcoming Presidential election. We absolutely have a problem with people crossing the border for more opportunity. But we must be clear in differentiating those looking for economic advantage and those seeking survival. We also must be careful not to add our own qualifiers to Holy Scripture as justification to refuse aid to those who are desperate and hopeless without it. This issue may be a defining moment for the modern church, more so than any previous issue. I have tried to imagine the hopelessness of being a father with a wife and young children, minding my own business, working hard to support my family, and suddenly finding that my home, my business and all my belongings were suddenly destroyed. Now I am forced to flee because the war and violence poses a dangerous and potentially lethal threat to my wife and children. We flee to the nearest country for harbor but are soon deported and ultimately turned away because there is no room or provisions available, much like the night of our Savior’s birth. I have no funds, no food, no shelter and no foreseeable relief. Through no fault of my own I and my family are now unwanted visitors to a cruel world. I’m quite sure that my imagination of their plight pales in comparison to the harsh reality. The very thing that we hold dear, self-preservation is ironically the very same reason they are refugees.

The inscription on the statue of Liberty reads “…give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free-send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me. ”

Jesus says “come to Me, all you who labor and are burdened down and I will give you rest.” Are we the hands and feet of Christ or just a safe meme on social media for a Like and an Amen?

There is certainly no easy answer to this crisis, but for believers in Christ, there is only one right one. Father, soften our hearts and give wisdom to our leaders and let us not be found guilty of refusing the least of these when asked how we responded to your children.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Response to the Papal Visit

Pope Francis greets a child after celebrating Mass on the feast of Pentecost in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican May 19. (CNS photo/Alessia Giuliani, Catholic Press Photo) (May 20, 2013) See POPE-PENTECOST May 20, 2013.

This week Pope Francis, the recognized leader of the Catholic church made his first visit to the U.S. Pope Francis is extremely popular, not only among the Catholic church but with many non-Catholics as well.  His outward demeanor, his refusal to hide behind the peaceful sanitary confines of the Vatican in favor of mingling with his flock and dirtying his hand in service have not gone unnoticed.  He is truly a peoples’ Pope.

The overwhelming crowds and cheers along his parade route and the pomp of his arrival yesterday is not too surprising.  What is surprising, however are those who not only oppose his visit and his views, but who do so with disdain and a classless disrespect for the position.  Just today on popular social media sites he has been called a moron, a dope, a tree-hugger and other unmentionable labels by those who have no fear or reverence for the Church or its leaders. The protestors and hate mongers have already made their presence known and this is only the first full day of the Pope’s visit.

I am not a Catholic but I attended a Catholic High School and I appreciate the history of the Catholic Church and understand somewhat its long held Christian views on many of the social issues that have polarized the Church. I don’t have to be in agreement with every stance held by the Catholic Church any more than I agree with all the various Protestant beliefs of my current practice. That said, the Catholic church, perhaps more so than the Protestant counterpart, has held firm and in line with the Biblical views on the sanctity of marriage, the protection of the unborn and the benevolence of the under privileged that society chooses to overlook. Pope Francis favors responsible and reasonable capitalism as a means to further provide for the “least of these”. To many he seems to be saying and doing all the right things.  This fact alone has brought out the end-timers in great numbers.

Throughout modern history there have been those who are sure who the anti-Christ will be, where he will come from and how we will recognize him.  Various apocalyptic movies have portrayed the anti-Christ coming from the Vatican.  You don’t have to search past the first google page to find articles claiming the possibility of this Pope being the anti-Christ.  While I am not ashamed to admit I don’t know everything, I find it both laughable and sad that a man who is doing everything according to scripture, both Catholic and Protestant scripture, and consequently being hailed by the hundreds of millions he represents as the genuine article, is being labeled an anti-Christ because of his resulting popularity. Katy Perry, Justin Bieber, Barack Obama and Taylor Swift EACH have over 60 MILLION followers on Twitter.  Should we be looking at them as possible anti-Christs because of their popularity? Is there any credibility in the criteria being used to prop up the Pope as being Anti-Christian? I would argue that not only is that answer a resounding No but Pope Francis seems to be the embodiment of what a Christ follower should look like.  If you read scripture closely, you will see that everywhere Jesus went crowds followed.

Another argument touted by many non-Catholics is that no one man should be given so much attention or held in such a high esteem.  This would be true if one were propping himself up as a god to be worshipped and followed.  We are to have no gods but God.  However, there is a story in the book of Acts that gets little attention.  It involves the Apostle Peter, viewed by most as the first head of the Church.

“More and more people believed and were brought to the Lord-crowds of both men and women. As a result of the apostles work, sick people were brought into the streets on beds and mats so that Peter’s shadow might fall across some of them as he went by. Crowds came from the villages around Jerusalem bringing their sick and those possessed by evil spirits, and they were all healed.” …Acts Chapter 5

There is a lot of misunderstanding between the Catholic, the Orthodox and the Protestant churches, and sadly a lot of exclusivity. We don’t accept iconology so it must be wrong.  We don’t get incense or confession so it must be inaccurate.  We don’t accept free worship and non-liturgical approaches so they too must not be correct. I wish it weren’t so. I’ve looked and looked for geographical, denominational and liturgical parameters in scripture but to date, I have found none. What I have found is that God so loved all the world, He gave up His Son.  All who accept, believe, emulate and worship Him are called children of God.  I find that true religion consists of taking care of orphans, widows, homeless and the less fortunate without boundaries or qualifications. Any man that shows me how to do this has my respect as a religious leader, be they a Pope, an Orthodox priest, a monk, a nameless face working skid row, a missionary to a third world country or even (choke) a political leader. When we stand before the throne of Christ there will be no titles, no rankings, no vestments and no exclusive recognition.  We will be on our faces before the one true and forever leader of the Church. Until that day comes we have been given the Pope Francis’s and the Billy Grahams to emulate as leaders.  If we are called through Holy Scripture to uphold, pray for and respect those in public office, how much more should we show the same respect for our religious and spiritual leaders, even if outside of our faith approach or practice.  God bless Pope Francis and all like him who carry the banner of Christ.