Posts Tagged ‘grace’

Back in April (remember April?…seems a long while ago, for some reason) I started off in a challenge to write and post, consistently, for one month; sadly, I did not succeed. I didn’t run out of ideas (indeed, my Drafts folder glares at me sullenly every time I open my dashboard); neither did sudden catastrophe strike…I just got busy and got behind, and so “failed” to live up to the expectations of the challenge. With an eerie sense of the familiar, I followed this “failure” with another, even more tragic: I continued not-writing, at least in this place, for an entire month and more…with only the pitiful excuse of guilt as a reason for this “failure echo”. This cannot be allowed to continue. I have learned to see this as a metaphor for how I always have dealt with my shortcomings: I give my yesterdays power over my tomorrows…I accept that “Past performance is the surest indicator of future behavior”, and so my choices become scripted by “what has been” instead of  “what should be”…I deem myself “unworthy”, and then earn that designation. It’s deeper than the way I write, it goes into every aspect of how I live; the writing is only one way that the life I live on the inside expresses itself on the outside. Come, I’ll show you what I mean.

I recently observed my third anniversary of employment with the company; this marks the longest time I have worked anywhere in my entire life or career. (Well, I attended the same high school for 4 years, does that count?) This has been, by every measure, the best place I have ever worked. I have survived a corporate merger and downsizing, brought on by two years of downturns in the local economy, while watching my salary increase 25%; upper management is very encouraging and supportive of me, allowing me to grow and expand my skills and my role. At the same time, they have stood beside me as I serve in ministry, scheduling my workload around the twice-annual visits to the prisons on Kairos teams; stood beside me as I cared for my wife during her year-long battle with breast cancer treatment, guaranteeing a minimum weekly paycheck (and continued insurance benefits) whether I worked or not, long after I had exhausted my personal time off allotment for the year. The level of mutual respect among my co-workers exceeds anything I ever imagined that “a job” could provide. Yet, earlier this week I came within hours of losing my job, literal hours, because I fell short of MY expectations, and nearly allowed the “failure echo” to unravel everything. I’m still too close to spell out the step by step of what happened, perhaps in a later post, perhaps not…but the details are not as important as the big picture – I allowed pride and fear to rule over me, instead of accepting that I have been set free; I looked forgiveness in the face and screamed, “I don’t deserve you!” – which is completely true…and completely the amazing message of God’s grace.

Long story short, and the reason I posted this: in my desperate hour I cried out to the Lord, and by the power of prayer, I was able to hear that message clearly despite my despair…and respond to it. I am on the way to restoring my relationship with my employer, but there are others I also need to restore…including the one with you, my readers. I bailed out on you, with no warning or explanation…left in mid-conversation, with over half yet unspoken. I am sorry, and I will make the effort to be better…or at least, more honest, OK? and I can do another thing – I can post the rest of the Challenge! I have most of them written, but a bit of polish before release is needed, so look for one or two a week. The ideas are worth their moment in the light of day, and I will enjoy the privilege of sharing them with you. See you again very soon, may you remain aware of the blessings you enjoy!


Throughout the Bible, there are incidents where foreign kings and officials interact with God’s people; whether it be Pharaoh of Egypt, Cyrus of Persia, or Caesar himself, these men typically believe themselves to be in ultimate control of their own destiny. But they are included in the Scriptures to demonstrate that all people and all things are subject to the will of God, and are disposed according to His design. The Roman governor Felix, whom we see in the later chapters of the book of Acts, is another such individual.

In Acts 23 and 24, the Apostle Paul is being hounded and hunted by the Jewish officials in Jerusalem. Having declared a religious war on those who follow the Way of Jesus, they now must deal with the “defection” of one of their most formidable inquisitors, Saul of Tarsus; who has been transformed by an encounter with Christ into a new creation, the Apostle Paul. Paul has traveled far and wide across Asia Minor, spreading the good news of Jesus raised from the dead and promising forgiveness of sin and eternal life; things in opposition to contemporary Jewish teachings. The Jews wish Paul dead, nothing less, and attack him in public. This forces the involvement of the local Roman authorities, who step in to quell civil unrest. Upon learning of a plot to ambush and murder Paul, the commander orders him sent to appear before the provincial governor, Felix.

Felix is a consummate politician; he is familiar with the social structures of the province he rules over (he is in fact married to a Jewish woman), and knows that Paul’s conflicts with the high priest do not involve Roman criminal law; he therefore has no compelling reason to find fault. He does have, on the other hand, an opportunity to ingratiate himself with the religious authorities in Jerusalem (helpful in preserving peace, which is one of his most prominent duties to Rome), as well as the potential of receiving a payoff to deliver a suitable verdict on Paul’s behalf (helpful for living a comfortable lifestyle, one of his prominent duties to himself). Felix finds himself in an ambiguous place, uncertain of how to proceed, but aware of the dangers of choosing wrongly;  this becomes strikingly clear to him as Paul speaks about righteousness and the coming judgement – a time where every man will be held accountable for the choices he has made. Felix is not a bold man, he is a cautious  man, and has governed according to what was best for Felix, rather than seeking truth and justice in his administration; he is not thrilled to learn of a time when he will be required to answer for himself. In typical bureaucratic style, he therefore makes no decision whatsoever, and keeps Paul in custody for over two years, until he is finally replaced by another governor.

I am not thrilled to learn of a time coming where all my choices will require an accounting; I know I have acted selfishly, more than not; or given in to anger, fear, greed…any number of weaknesses. I do have something, though, that Felix apparently did not possess – I have hope; the hope that comes from a faith in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior; hope that forgiveness of sin is available to me through His atonement; hope that in Him, I will stand before God and be accounted as washed in the Blood of the Lamb, white as snow; and be welcomed into my Father’s rest. Thus, I can make decisions; I can take risks; I can declare what I believe to be true without concern for how others will receive me. Because He lives, I no longer have to be afraid!

(Originally delivered 1-20-13)

Today this nation observes one of its most significant rituals – Inauguration Day, a time set aside for the administration of a solemn oath to the President-elect for his upcoming term of office. By law, the Inauguration takes place on January 20, so Barack Obama, honoring the precedents set by the six previous occasions this date has occurred on a Sunday, will participate in a private ceremony at the White House this morning, with the public event occurring tomorrow in front of the Capital Building. The oath which he will swear requires the President to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States”. This is not a mandate to serve any specific group of people, or a government, or even a nation; it is instead a calling to preserve a set of ideals: a way of thinking about what our leaders should and should not do to and for those under their authority.

In New Testament times, the religious leaders of that era, the Sanhedrin, were likewise not concerned with serving a people, or protecting a nation – in truth, as a puppet state under Roman occupation, they had very little say in these matters. Instead, they also felt called to preserve a set of ideals: the Torah – the Law of Moses – and the Talmud – a compilation of the remainder of the oral traditions of Judaism (Mishna) and centuries of accumulated commentary (Gemara). One sect, the Pharisees, considered themselves the “experts” on the Law and its many detailed interpretations, and jealously guarded their authority to tell the people what they could and could not do in their service to God.

Whenever Jesus interacted with the Jewish religious leaders, they always brought up the subject of “authority” – usually in the form of demands that Jesus explain or defend His actions, and demonstrate the source of His authority to do and say the things He did and said. When He responded to them (He didn’t always), He often cited the very Scriptures the Pharisees claimed such expertise over, particularly the writings of Moses, such as we see recorded in John 5:39-40, and then in verses 45-47:

 “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about Me, yet you refuse to come to Me to have life…But do not think I will accuse you before the Father. Your accuser is Moses, on whom your hopes are set. If you believed Moses, you would believe Me, for he wrote about Me. But since you do not believe what he wrote, how are you going to believe what I say?”

 Over and over, Jesus stated that His authority was from the Father, and His calling was to do the will of the Father, to make the Kingdom of heaven present on earth, as we see when Jesus teaches His disciples to pray in Matthew 6:10-

 “Your kingdom come,Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

When Jesus had completed His work on earth, having shed His blood on the cross, been buried in the tomb, and risen again; and was about to return to the Father’s right hand, He passed that authority on to His disciples, and to us, the church of Jesus Christ, with an unmistakable mandate, a Great Commission:

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

This appearance of the risen Christ occurs at the very end of Matthew’s Gospel, but it is not the last time Jesus speaks to His followers in Galilee. Scripture shows us another meeting by the shore of the sea, this time at the end of John’s Gospel, Chapter 21:15-22, our anchor text for today. We heard it read earlier, let’s look at it together now:

 When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love Me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “You know that I love You.” Jesus said, “Feed My lambs.” Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love Me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, You know that I love You.” Jesus said, “Take care of My sheep.”  The third time He said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love Me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.” Jesus said, “Feed My sheep. Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then He said to him, “Follow me!” Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is going to betray You?”) When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow Me.”

 Today I want to examine in more detail the way Jesus poses His questions, the way Peter responds, and how Jesus in turn commands Him…because we read it today and see the same words used in each instance; but language and cultural differences obscure the fact that there are two different ideas being discussed, and three distinct mandates. And those distinctions are important…perhaps the MOST important things for us today, as we ask ourselves, “How do we love Him?”

We cannot look at this story without thinking of how Peter had previously denied Jesus three times…the parallel is so obvious that I can only believe it is intentional; that we are meant to compare this scene to the other. I am referring, of course, to the events occurring after Jesus is betrayed by Judas and arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane. Let’s pick up the story in Luke 22:54-62 –

Then seizing [Jesus], they led Him away and took Him into the house of the high priest. Peter followed at a distance. And when some there had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and had sat down together, Peter sat down with them. A servant girl saw him seated there in the firelight. She looked closely at him and said, “This man was with Him.” But he denied it. “Woman, I don’t know Him,” he said. A little later someone else saw him and said, “You also are one of them.” “Man, I am not!” Peter replied. About an hour later another asserted, “Certainly this fellow was with Him, for he is a Galilean.” Peter replied, “Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Just as he was speaking, the rooster crowed. The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows today, you will disown Me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly.

Recall that, only a short while before this, Peter had made some very bold claims about the quality of his faithfulness, saying he would follow Jesus to his death if need be; the bitterness of his tears comes from the realization of his weakness. Indeed, at the beginning of John 21, despite having seen his Lord risen from the grave, Peter has returned to fishing, with several of the others accompanying him on the boat. Scripture is not explicit about Peter’s emotional state, but let me hazard a guess: I have been in the place of having made big promises that I could not live up to;  feeling unworthy because of it; deciding that maybe it would be better if I just went back to doing what I knew I was good at, and leaving the boldness to others…and I would be willing to bet that I’m not the only one. Today, on this side of history, we have the advantage of knowing how this story works out: Peter, along with the other disciples and followers of Jesus, receives the infilling of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, becoming a powerful and persuasive preacher and leader of the church in Jerusalem, and later in the great churches of Antioch and Rome; in fact, the Roman Catholic tradition venerates Peter as the “First Pope”. But Peter doesn’t know that, does he? He certainly believes in Jesus, but I have to wonder how much he believes in himself right at this moment. I believe this is why Jesus speaks to him directly, to restore Peter from “fisherman” to “fisher of men”, to bring home to Peter the truth of forgiveness and redemption – the same truth that applies to each and every one of us here today: the truth that the grace of God overcomes all our weaknesses, and provides the means for us to carry on the work of the Kingdom here on earth.

I said a minute ago that language obscures some important distinctions in this passage, so let me now unpack that, by looking at the text in the original Greek. Let’s begin in v.15, and you’ll see what I mean – (I will address Jesus’ responses in a minute; for now let’s focus on the question and answer portion):

When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love Me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “You know that I love You.” Jesus said, “Feed My lambs.”

The word for “love” that Jesus uses – agapao – speaks of unconditional love; love with no regard to circumstance, worthiness, emotion, or behavior; love based on intention and commitment; a decision instead of a reaction. His comment “more than these” is a direct reference to Peter’s bragging in the upper room – since that is what it was – when Peter said that, no matter what anyone else did, HE would stand the test…and then he didn’t. Jesus wants Peter to confront his shame and failure, but at first Peter dodges the issue; the word he answers with – phileo – carries the idea of affection for someone, liking a person because you have something in common, or some situation that would build closeness: the “band of brothers” kind of love that develops between teammates; or coworkers; or soldiers; …or disciples of one master. This kind of love depends on the situation; once the bond is broken, the love can fade away. This is all Peter is willing to own up to, at this point….but Jesus know better than that. In v.16, Jesus repeats the question, but more directly –

Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love Me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, You know that I love You.” Jesus said, “Take care of My sheep.”

This second query follows the pattern of the first: Jesus says agapao, Peter answers phileo – Jesus is asking for total commitment, but Peter can only promise the passion of the moment. He knows that he has failed his Lord: when it came down to it, his fear for his personal safety was greater than his love for the One he followed – the promises of what was to come were overshadowed by the certainty of what he could see right in front of him. (In all fairness, Peter was not alone: all the disciples scattered; most of them were on the boat fishing with Peter at the beginning of Chapter 21; but I believe Peter is singled out because he did the loudest boasting, and thus had the greatest shame.) I can understand the nature if that fear: the Jewish authorities were working hand in hand with the Romans to preserve the “peace” in Jerusalem, as well as their own position; had they allowed the uprising of Jesus and His followers to continue,  Rome would have certainly brought down brutal retribution to squash any dissent – and replaced those in leadership with someone more effective, something that had occurred more than once within the experience of all those present. Peter believed that Jesus was who He said He was, the resurrection was His obvious testimony…but Peter also knew that death by the sword was ever-present, lurking in the background, waiting for any excuse to manifest itself. Being human comes with human fears, and dependence on human sensibilities for survival; and at this point, human ability was all Peter had to go on… Pentecost was still to come, the Holy Spirit had not yet descended upon the church.  Jesus knows this, too, but He wants Peter to see beyond that – to remember the trust developed in the years they have spent together, the bond they had formed while sleeping, eating, walking, talking, teaching, preaching, healing, 24/7/365… so He persists in His questioning – look at v.17:

The third time He said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love Me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love Me?” He said, “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.” Jesus said, “Feed My sheep.”

This time, Jesus meets Peter halfway – phileo instead of agapao – saying that He knows this is the best Peter can do, but if he will commit that much, it is enough. This is important, because the pain Peter feels comes from his acknowledgment of his own unworthiness, his confession made in repentance. Jesus has finally brought Peter to the point of surrender, of submission, the place where each of us must come to before we can fully receive what Jesus has to offer us. As long as we are willing to make excuses for ourselves…to say, “It’s too hard to follow Jesus, and live for Him, and love Him like I should…I’m just a fisherman, I quit”…we will never be able to enter the Kingdom of heaven. Jesus looked right at Peter after he had denied Him three times, and Peter ran away in shame. This time, Jesus is looking right at Peter after he has confirmed his love for him three times – the only love he is capable of, but love nonetheless…and Peter does not run away; and because of that, Jesus responds with compassion and forgiveness…and a promise, a prophecy – let’s read v.18-19:

“Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then He said to him, “Follow Me!”

That image of “stretching out your hands” had a very specific connotation to the people in first century Palestine – it meant that person would be crucified, their hands tied or nailed to a cross to be executed. Remember Peter bragging that he would follow Jesus to death if it was required of him? Jesus had answered him that it would not happen as Peter imagined it, but that it would happen – here Jesus repeats that prophesy, and in fact Peter did die by crucifixion at the hands of the Roman emperor Nero, as an older man, some thirty years after Jesus; church tradition states that he was tied to his cross, rather than nailed, and hung upside down by his own request, since he considered himself less worthy than Jesus, and wished his head to point down towards earth, rather than up towards heaven. Jesus last words in v.18, “Follow Me!” should be considered at a renewal of Peter’s calling as an apostle, a command to continue in what he had been doing all along – living out the fulfillment of the Kingdom of heaven on earth.

Now, let me back up and collect the loose ends: the responses Jesus has each time Peter affirms his love. At first glance it might seem that each is a simple repetition, but this is not the case – none of us here today are farmers or shepherds, so we are simply unfamiliar with the care of sheep, and we miss the nuances. I feel, however, that the subtle differences in these three statements actually comprise the job description for a pastor, so I want to quickly go over them. Let’s put all three statements together, and you will see what I mean:

v.15 – “Feed My lambs.” – means to nurture the newborns and get them started

v.16 – “Take care of My sheep.” – means to watch over and guide the flock

v.17 – “Feed My sheep.” – means to ensure the flock is well fed on good pasture

If we compare this to the Great Commission we looked at earlier, we see that each has a correspondence: “lambs” refers to new believers, those to whom we preach the Gospel and baptize into the community of faith; “caring for sheep” can be seen as the work of correction and rebuke that is required on an ongoing basis to make disciples; “feeding sheep” refers to the instruction in God’s Word that we who are more mature are called to do to for and among our brothers and sisters, that they may also grow in spiritual maturity and godliness…a process that all of us should be willing to be a part of, in submission to the Holy Spirit and the ongoing work of sanctification we are expected to participate in, as we await the return of our Lord, on that day when we are lifted up by Him and presented to the Father. I personally believe that we are all under these commands, but especially those of us called into leadership – the preachers, the teachers, the pastors – we have a special gifting that allows us to serve the Kingdom of God in a special way, and this interaction we see between Jesus and Peter is a blessing and a reminder that, even when our human natures cause us to stumble or fail, Jesus will hear our confessions, and receive us back to resume our ministry, to be His hand and feet here on earth. We may not be capable of agape love on our own; in fact I am certain we are not; but Jesus is, and by His Spirit residing in us, we can love Him as He loves us.

Let’s close with the final verses of this passage. I believe this serves us as a reminder that we are to say focused on what God is doing in OUR lives, and how we are only responsible for how WE answer the calling He places upon each of us. Often times, we are distracted, or even discouraged, by the way another brother or sister is being used by God – we look at them and say to ourselves, “Wow, what a great work he is doing! I can’t do anything like that, why should I even bother? The Lord doesn’t need me when He has workers like that!” Peter nearly falls for this same trick of the enemy, when he asks about what Jesus has in mind for “the beloved disciple”, who is probably John himself. Jesus tells Peter straight out, “Mind your own business!” He has His entire plan in mind, and He instructs each of us in our part of it…and frankly, managing that is about as much as any of us is capable of, isn’t it? We must not get confused about this, which can happen when we take our eyes off of Jesus, and start looking at others, or ourselves. His final words are neither a suggestion nor a statement..the verb is an imperative: “You MUST follow Me!”

The ideas I have shared from this passage have been on my heart and on my mind for about a year now – in fact, ever since our pastor announced that he was leaving, and moving his ministry elsewhere. That act made real to me something I knew intellectually, but not internally….that the ways we serve God will change as we mature in Christ…or, at least, they should, if we are doing it right! Thinking that things will never change is in fact a sinful quenching of the Spirit, such as we are warned against by the writer of  Hebrews in 5:12-14 –

In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.

All of us should be desiring to respond to our callings, to get up from our seats and move in His grace, to do the work He has set for us to do…so I invite you now, as we prepare to close our worship in singing today, to pray now for God to reveal how you can best serve His kingdom…to confess your fears and failures – He already knows them, after all, so He won’t think less of you for doing it – and allow Jesus to restore you to your rightful place as one of His ministers, one of His shepherds, one of those who tends His flocks. Will you stand? Will you pray with me? Will you love Jesus today?

Our brave, beautiful friend, Danni, has gone on to her eternal reward…The Lord has healed her completely, she will never suffer again.

Please continue her family in your prayers…her husband, two daughters and their husbands, and her grandchildren…they know she is in a better place, but it is still hard, coming to terms with their loss.

We all await the day we are reunited in His presence, Danni – until then, know that we love you.

Hi everybody! I haven’t done much “free writing” here lately; seems like everything has been purpose-driven: sermon texts, bible studies, reblogs of (really great) work by others, and discussions in apologetics – that’s pretty much the index for the whole last month, isn’t it? Well, today I want to ramble a bit, so thanks for reading along, or you can click away…the wonderful freedom of the Internet, that no one is forced to suffer a bore! (But I really hope you aren’t bored by what I say, and if you are, why are you still reading this sentence?)

One thing on my mind is “perception”. This has been pinging at me from a few different directions lately. I live a life with many facets, like most people do, right? But it always amuses me a little when friends from one area seem stunned to learn that there is more than one side to who I am…as if the part they interact with is all there is to me, when they themselves are many-sided people…we all are, aren’t we? Or has TV corrupted our minds to the point that now we think of each other as characters in tiny little reality shows…you’re either Snooki or Honey-Boo-Boo; a ballroom dancer or a guy who makes duck calls; you bake exotic cakes or build exotic motorcycles or wear and create exotic tattoos, and that’s all I need to know. The only exception I can think of is “The Most Interesting Man in the World”, but even he exists only to hawk mediocre Mexican beer (I don’t always seem condescending, but when I do, there’s money in it!)

That last one highlights the confusing flip-side to this: the lengths fiction goes to in creating back stories for characters…imaginary people can be shallow, because they have a limited purpose and don’t need much more than shadows and suggestions for us to decide how we need to view them. Writers know this (or should know it); lazy writers use stereotypes as  a quick and easy way to get the audience where they need to be to understand the plot…who are the “bad guys”, who are the “good guys”, and what are their motives? For the purpose of entertainment, that’s fine…I really don’t want to invest a lot of time and energy “doing life” with a cartoon. But real people are not entertainment – it is very multitude of interests we have that make us worth knowing – yet we are becoming conditioned to treat everyone outside of ourselves as if they exist merely for our own benefit or amusement…and it’s working. This near-sightedness, or tunnel-vision, has direct impact on how we interact with others, but sometimes I wonder if I’m the only one who notices it. Let me share two examples from experience.

Recently, I was approached by my employer, who wanted to discuss my future with the company, so he asked me into his office and closed the door. (Does anyone ever enjoy that moment, wondering what is coming next?) He expressed his appreciation for my contributions to the company, and the efforts I have made to improve both communication between office and field, as well as efficiency in the execution of our work. Of course, I am sitting there waiting for the other shoe to drop – in the past, these speeches have proceeded an explanation of why my contributions are no longer needed – and he blows me away by telling me that he wants to invest in my future; he feels I can be of greater benefit to the company by training others in the way I approach a project than by doing the work myself. I am humbled, and grateful…with my wife’s illness, the prospect of losing by job and health insurance fills me with cold dread…and so we begin to discuss some concrete details. He was surprised to learn that I have already been through several of the management and leadership courses he had in mind; that I have previous design, engineering, and CAD experience, going back over twenty years; that I have already purchased some of the collared shirts that office employees wear instead of the logo t-shirts of field crews (out of my own pocket, because the company only provides one set of “uniform” shirts); and that I have public-speaking experience from preaching at my home church…I am much “more” than what he thought I was, and it confuses him…why I am content to “plod along”, when I could be leveraging into higher paying jobs? But I have a checkered history, which limited my options long ago; I still believe that faithfulness and loyalty count for something, even in today’s economy; and these people have been patient, understanding, and supportive of my ministry work and the difficulties of Karen’s illness…how could I receive that, and then leave because someone offered me a dollar or two more an hour?

– – –

Many of my partners in the prison ministry attend a United Methodist mega-church in one of the wealthy enclave communities that surround Houston. They have invited me to participate in any number of the “small group” activities they participate in (I guess 300 men in a discussion group is “small” when Sunday worship attendance is 8,000, but I belong to a church of less than 100, so it’s weird) and I have accepted once or twice, but the “character” disconnect seems to make it strange and uncomfortable for them. These are, by and large, good Christian men and women; but also, by and large, they are white-collar professionals, from good families, with college degrees. So when we shake hands, and they are surprised at how strong and rough my grip is from years of physical labor; or they want to meet at 6am on a weekday for coffee and fellowship, but I must decline because I am either already at the jobsite, or commuting to get there for 7am start time; or when someone asks for a donation to a worthy cause, and they reach for checkbooks and write zeros, while I’m counting cash from my billfold and thinking about how much gas I have in the truck…I am somehow “less than” the person they assume I am, and it confuses them…how can I do this ministry, giving so much to these people, when I have so little of my own?  But while we may serve as brothers and sister in Christ on the teams in the prisons, I have a substantial difference in perspective: they serve in obedience to the call of Jesus to reach “the least of these”,  and while that is also true for me, I do it more because I was once one of those “least”. There is a vast distance between “sympathy” and “empathy”, and the former does not guarantee the latter. I love my friends’ giving hearts, and how they serve because they are richly blessed; but I serve how I do precisely because I have nothing else to give except myself…and I also consider myself richly blessed.

– – –

I don’t know that any of this has a point…I said this was a ramble. So I will leave you with the closest thing to an explanation for how and why I act, work, serve and DO the things I do..I have made this a focus of my devotional time for about two years now, and it continues to inspire me; perhaps it can do the same for you: Colossians 3:23-24, NIV

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.

I just made it home from my long day at work and running errands, and the first thing I heard on the TV is news of the terrible tragedy in Connecticut. (I have no access to news and such on the jobsite, and I never got around to replacing the radio in my truck when it got stolen…the hole in the dash makes a pretty good theft-deterrent system.)  My immediate reaction? Begin praying for the families, and turn off the news – because the very last thing I want is to hear any more about it. That reaction got me to thinking… why am I turning away? Am I becoming  insensitive, or inured to the pain of others? Well, no… but the truth is quite revealing in its own right.

The most basic, primal feeling in my gut was exhaustion…I am just completely worn out by this latest horrible occurrence in a series of horrible occurrences this year alone. I hope that doesn’t sound shallow or self-centered – I am quite aware that I have suffered no personal injury or loss in any of these circumstances, and real lives have been permanently changed for the worse; who am I to try to make this about me? (Some might even say, “How dare you?” , but I have never been afraid to say things that others might not understand.) But it’s not about me, so much as it’s about the world…I think I have lost my capacity to feel shock or surprise at the pervasive nature of evil. The bible tells us the world is fallen, ruined by sin and death; why do we act surprised when we see continuing evidence that this is so? On the contrary, I shake my head in disbelief when people speak of the “essential goodness of human nature”, when in truth there is no such thing. Jesus Himself said as much, speaking to the rich young man who wanted to know how to get into heaven. Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m not “anti-people”; that would make the calling God has placed on me to be a pastor seem kind of silly, wouldn’t it? But there is a reason that the tag line on my email for the last several years has been:

He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming quickly.”   Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus!  (Rev 22:20 NKJV)

This verse has been a part of my daily prayers almost since I returned to walking with Him in 2005. My faith in God, in the perfect redemption of mankind by the atoning sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, makes it possible for me to eagerly await His return. I take comfort that all the suffering, the pain, the despair…all these will come to an end. It also makes it possible for me to endure until such time as His plan and purposes are fulfilled, as I have no wish that any would perish, but that all would come to know Him and believe, despite knowing that there are those who will not. Many, many people will look at today’s events, and those of previous days, weeks, and months, and curse God for allowing this to happen, or question whether He even exists… the newsfeed from my relatively small number of Facebook friends is evidence of that. I have no answer for them which they will accept, and my heart breaks because of that. Others will take the opportunity to push their own agendas, or profit from it in some way, and that saddens me even more…and underlines my point at the same time – the world IS going to Hell, and it doesn’t need a handbasket to get there; it knows the way all on its own.

Following hard after Him, (even when some days are harder than others)


Tune in tomorrow…

Posted: November 13, 2012 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , ,

Folks, real life has once again reared its ugly head…nothing urgent or evil, just a whole lot of normal stuff that piled up while I was away serving at the prison, plus a lot to do at the church.

Regular programming will resume as soon as I catch up, a day or so I think. Keep watching…it only gets better!

Following hard after Him, (and this week I am sore),


October, specifically the last 10 days or so, has always been my favorite season of the year. I’m  Houston native, so the realities of growing up in a home with no air conditioning made the cooling off of Fall into the stuff of daydreams and visions in the heat shimmer coming off the concrete. Also, there was the eager expectation of the sanctioned gluttony and wantonness of Halloween …we weren’t church people, or even Christians really, so all was fair as long as Dad didn’t have to pay for anything and nobody went to the hospital…pretty good system from a kid’s-eye view.

Later in life, I became enthralled with the spectacle of the natural cycle…spring inspires many, but for me fall is much more mysterious; watching vibrant life transition into restful slumber,  fills me with a breathtaking faith in, and expectation of, a promised rebirth – I cannot explain it any better than that, I have tried but it escapes definition. I actually flirted with paganism briefly in college, looking for some deeper meaning in the forest, rather than the One who made the trees in the first place. (Wow, if you ever want proof that God has a sense of humor, consider that twenty five years later, that same confused, crisp-air-and-candy-addled young man would be writing a blog post instead of finishing the most important sermon he has ever been asked to present…I couldn’t pitch that on public access, let alone network TV.)

There’s a cold front moving in this evening; the wind is dragging the tree branches against the house, and it makes the dogs anxious. Karen is tired, and her irregular sleep schedule makes her anxious and irritable as well, but God bless her, she is working so hard to not take it out on anyone, and she is succeeding enough to earn the “A”, so all is well there. I have a full slate of projects to get focused on, and while I fervently prayed not to find myself in the position I’m in with some areas, we are past that point, and it is what it is. I am faced with a decision, and I do not have all the information I need to make it, nor a definable deadline. That does not absolve me of the responsibility to answer my calling to the best of my ability, where He put me, until such time as He sees fit to move me elsewhere. The prison ministry I serve makes a point of explaining to our participants the difference between the two Greek words used in the New Testament to describe time: chronos – linear time, as measured by humans,  with the expectation of schedules and timetables that we can manipulate and control; and kairos, “God’s time”, the “fullness of time”, the time that God has ordained for this thing to come to be. We have no control over this kind of time; we can neither hurry things along, nor hold them back. Living in this kind of time requires a rock-solid faith, a willingness to go to a country we have not seen yet, but will be shown the way as we go. Jesus reboots that, and shows us how to get to that country – from Mark 8:

34 When He had called the people to Himself, with His disciples also, He said to them, “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. 35 For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it.”

Denying myself does not mean that I don’t use the gifts I have been given…it means that this whole last year has been intensive training in how to use them properly, so that I serve God and not my own ego or interests. I have failed in this area before, but I have learned much since then…and I have had success, too. It came when I began to do the work for God and not for me –  this verse is pinned to the wall beside my monitor:

“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.”

My heart is wringing out, I see confused, hurting people all around me, and I must minister to them…this is what I am here to do. If there is more to come later, so be it…I’m not all that interested in “later”. If I’m supposed to be following Jesus, how about I believe and do what He said?

“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”

OK, I’m gonna go outside, look at the blowing leaves, then finish my sermon and go to bed. Today is nearly over, I’m done with its trouble, and tomorrow isn’t here yet. Good night, good weekend, God bless you all.

Following hard after Him,


PS: The Friday Forum may become an alternating feature; I would love some comments on which types of posts you most enjoy, as I re-examine the focus of the blog, and decide what to keep, dump, or add.

I just had this thought rolling around in my head, and needed to share it so it will let me sleep tonight – thanks for reading!

When someone hurts us, it is our natural instinct to cry out for Justice – We have been wronged, and a price must be paid. (This is the essence of God’s case against humanity – He has been wronged, grieved, injured by our sin, and His justice demands propitiation.)

The difference between vengeance and grace is in what we are willing to accept as payment: Vengeance says, “I have suffered,  so you must suffer as I have;”  while Grace says instead, “I have suffered, and I do not wish another to suffer like that. I will therefore give my pain to God, and accept His peace instead.”

– Nick Ortega

If you’ve been here before today, or following me on Twitter or Facebook, you already know the last week has been filled with emotion; and in all honesty I am not going discuss the situation in public any further at this time. I have done so to some extent, and I fear the reactions have been unprofitable for anyone. Therefore, while I cannot ignore the 800-pound gorilla camping out in my life, I am not required to attend to it. Moving on…

The 8000-pound gorilla of cancer was here first, anyway…remember that one? The one sitting on the couch, eating gorging itself on all of our money, time, attention and opportunities as fast at it can gobble them up? Yep, it’s still here, still hungry…but getting easier to manage with practice. That is something I didn’t expect…I knew that we would get used to the regimen, but not that it would start being, well, boring. Yes, I am painfully aware that I have the easy end of this fight; she is the one getting poisoned on a schedule…I would give anything to trade places, but that is not how God wants me to be. I need to be content in Him, in any circumstances (including the ones where I “just” watch my loved ones being tortured), and in the bible the Apostle Paul goes to great lengths to remind us of the blessings available to those who love God: grace, peace, joy. I pray for these things; I have even preached about them…so why am I unsatisfied when it happens? The grace of God has been more than sufficient for our needs; the money situation is under control (not great, but stable…good enough, and more than I deserve – I have a long history of trusting money more than God); Karen’s doctors are thrilled at how well she has tolerated chemo; and the long dreary spell at work with short hours but uncertainty aplenty has ended – I now have enough responsibility to occupy myself, and opportunities to demonstrate the claims I have been making to my bosses about how we can improve processes, and why I should be leading that. So what’s the problem?

The problem is…with all that going on, and God firmly in control of all of it, so I can focus and perform my duties effectively… why am I not content? What is it that makes me actively seek out more ways to do, to go, to serve? I think I know,  it’s an old acquaintance of mine named Impatience, and his entourage: Arrogance, Blame, and Contempt – I thought I had seen the last of this motley crew, but it seems they were waiting another chance to get back to work clouding my judgement, whispering in my ear that I don’t need counsel, I have all the information I need to do what needs to be done. This has never been true in the past, when I have listened to the whispers; but by grace God has blessed me with some valuable gifts: a smidgen of discernment,  a wife with much more wisdom than I have, and a score of true Godly men and women to call me on BS, and encourage me when I am on the right track.  I am a rich man indeed!

So, I remind myself to let up on the throttle (not off of it, there is work to do) and allow God’s time to happen, to be the wise servant diligent in my tasks, so as not to be caught unaware when my Lord returns. Contentment does not just happen; it must be an intentional act of my will to accept Jesus’ invitation:

“Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”

-Matthew 11:28-30

I accept, Jesus…I accept.

Following hard after Him,