Archive for the ‘On My Mind’ Category

Luke 15:11-31

I smiled when I saw the sign in the front yard. It was as big as a bedsheet: WELCOME HOME DAVE!

Dave was the son of Jack and Nancy Carter. Fine young man. He had just finished the semester and was coming home to Littleton, Colorado, for the summer.

You see it when someone returns from military deployment. The whole neighborhood rolls out. Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree. WELCOME HOME SOLDIER!

But what do you do when the kid coming home isn’t a well-behaved son or a patriotic young trooper returning from war?

The boy I have in mind has been acting like a pig, feeding pigs, eating with pigs. Took half of his dad’s money, swaggered off to Acapulco and blew it on booze and bimbos; trampled on everything he’d been taught at home and church. Lost his pals, his money, and his morals.

And now he’s coming home because he’s broke and hungry.

And catch this! His dad wants to throw a welcome-home party for him.

Do you think he deserves a party? I don’t think he deserves a party.

He left broken hearts behind when he left home; and left a mess behind when he headed back home.

His speech is ready and rehearsed: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.” That should do the trick.

But is his father’s forgiveness the only forgiveness he needs? Not only was he contaminated by Acapulco; he contaminated Acapulco. Abused and misused people.

We’ve wagged a shame-on-you finger at his fair-weather friends. Lousy loyalists we say—when he ran out of money they ran out on him.

But what havoc did he wreak on them? There were guys he led into debauchery and gals he led into shame. See that old-before-her-time girl carrying a baby on her hip? His baby?

I don’t think any of them would go to the party. And I don’t think I would go to the party.

We’ve also wagged a shame-on-you finger at his older sibling; the one that stayed home, worked hard, went to church every time the door was opened. He was boiling mad when he heard about the party for his ne’er-do-well kid brother. Refused to come to the party. Can’t say I blame him.

It’s too early to have a party. We need to wait and see if his penitence is genuine. Maybe he just decided it didn’t make sense to chow down with pigs in the slums when he could gorge on filet mignon in a mansion. How do we know his remorse is real? Maybe he’s pulling a fast one. Give him a bath, clean jeans, and a sandwich—but it’s too early for a robe, a ring, and a reception.

It’s too early to have a party. We need to wait and see what he’ll do when the memories of Acapulco come back and stir the itch for indulgence? How do we know he won’t relapse? The lure of lust may be too much for him and he may cut loose again. We need to wait and see how this turns out.

Let him come home. But don’t stake a WELCOME HOME SON! sign on the front lawn. Don’t hire a band and a caterer; don’t make a list and mail embossed invitations to the party. Let him show he’s on the up and up; get a job; earn his spurs. Don’t let him off the hook ’til he proves himself.

What does this lavish “Welcome Home” say to him?

Just this: You were missed, you are loved, you are forgiven, you are home.

So I’ve changed my mind. I think it’s time for a party because … because that is exactly how God treats us.

He was rich. But something was missing. So he came to Jesus with a question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mk. 10:17).

Obey the commandments.

Done that. What else must I do?

Well, if you’re serious, sell your stuff, give to the poor, and follow me.

That was setting the bar too high.

He came, but he didn’t stay.

In John 6, a slew of Jesus’ disciples found his teaching too demanding: “many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.”

They came, but they didn’t stay.

He turned to the twelve: “Do you want to go away as well?”

No! They came, and they stayed.

All but one.

Jesus began to explain to them that things were about to get dicey; he was going to be betrayed, condemned, mocked, spit on, flogged, and killed.

And here, he said, is what is going to happen to you: “you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death” (Matt. 24:9). Terrifying.

Maybe that’s what caused Judas to bolt.

The bar was too high.

He came, but he didn’t stay.

There comes a time when you, like that rich young man, feel that something is missing. You need answers. So you come to Jesus. But will you stay?

You may not be willing to give up what you have for what he offers, for here is what he offers:

If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me (Mk. 8:34).

That doesn’t mean patiently bearing the pains and disappointments of life. The cross is for one—and only one—purpose: to die on. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said: “When Christ calls a man he bids him come and die.”

Some of Jesus’ teachings are out of touch with the spirit of our times—or vice versa. A lot of people come to church these days to hear a message that will make them feel good about themselves. They don’t cotton to talk about cross-bearing and loving their enemies.

Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you (Lk. 6:27-28).

That kind of sermon won’t draw a crowd.

Love your enemies …
Do good to those who hate you …
Bless those who curse you …
Pray for those who mistreat you.

Whew! That’s setting the bar pretty high.

Too high?

 (God) is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful (Lk. 6:35-36).

You’ve come, but will you stay?

Day to day, year to year, news remains pretty much the same …

A war going on somewhere.
Violence on some street in our hometown.
People fighting for position, power, a bigger slice of the pie.
Hunger, with pictures so appalling we have to look away.
Those who have fallen on hard times living in poverty so cruel they have to choose food or medicine, but not both.

News that reminds us that outside the little world we live in, there is a bigger world that we’re a part of.

But most news doesn’t make the 10 o’clock scoop because it isn’t about the big world—it’s about our small world; news about us and those close to us.

Our World …

Some of the things going on in our little world are so routine we shuffle through them without giving them a thought.

Others are so jarring they make our teeth rattle: rejection, depression, failure, disappointment, loneliness, fear.

War? Yes, in our own private world we’re at war, if only with ourselves: “What I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing” (Rom. 7:19). And we scribble in the margin, “That’s me.”

The battles are real and the stakes are high.

Hunger? Yes, we experience that too.

In the big world, thousands of Third World children with tear-streaked cheeks, bloated bellies, and arms and legs like sticks starve to death every day.

That kind of hunger is unknown to us, but emotional hunger gnaws at us—the hunger to be wanted, to be understood, to be loved, to be at peace.

And the hunger to be better than we are; a “hunger and thirst for righteousness.”

Poverty? Yes, we know the pinch of poverty.

In our little world we know next to nothing about economic poverty, but at times we feel the ache of inner famine. Like King David, who had a boatload of money but admitted to being “poor and helpless,” our material prosperity doesn’t vaccinate us against the deadly infection of spiritual bankruptcy.

The World of Those Close to Us …

Our little world is not just about us; it’s also about those close to us—folks that are fighting their private wars, their secret hungers, their inner poverty.

Mother Theresa said: “The spiritual poverty of the West is greater than ours … You in the West have millions of people who suffer such terrible loneliness and emptiness. These are not hungry in the physical sense, but they are in another way. They know they need something more than money, yet they don’t know what it is.”

When Jesus said, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” he wasn’t tossing out a cliché to slap on the refrigerator door; he was telling us to feel the hurts of those who live shoulder-to-shoulder with us—those we work with, worship with, live with.

Jesus asked Peter if he loved him. Peter said he did. Then feed my sheep, take care of my lambs, Jesus said.

If we love him that’s what we will do—feed each other, take care of each other—because that’s what love of him does: “Anything you did for even the least of my people here, you also did for me,” he said.

Certainties

Apr
2016
02

Some wag said, “The only thing in life that is certain is that nothing is certain.”

Really?

Here are three things about which I feel certain …

Life is a gift from God to be
treasured and enjoyed.

“Can I help you find something?”

“Yes, thank you. I need a carton of kindness, a package of peace, a sack of self-control … and which aisle is gentleness on?”

We don’t find these on Walmart’s shelves.

But they are God’s gift to us if we want them … “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal. 5:22-23).

A fat wallet isn’t synonymous with a rich life; cup-running-over life comes from qualities that money can’t buy—a gift from God, custom-made for each of his children. He “richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment” (1 Tim. 6:17).

“I came to give life—life in all its fullness” (Jn. 10:10 NCV).

Friends are a gift from God to be
treasured and enjoyed.

No birth certificate is issued when a friendship is born. But when it comes into being life takes on new meaning: pleasure is increased; pain is diminished; life is enriched.

Our friends are always there for us, even though we may be separated by miles.

They accept us as we are—unconditionally.

Their opinion is biased in our favor. When they hear good things about us, they believe them; when they hear bad things, they don’t.

They delight in our victories and grieve over our defeats. They share our song and our sorrow, our life and our load.

They encourage us, affirm us, believe in us, care about us, love us.

But never judge us.

“A friend loves at all times …” (Prov. 17:17).

Sisters and brothers in Christ are a gift from God
to be treasured and enjoyed.

Today’s paper serves up a glut of publicity for some big name politicians … not one of which I have a hankering to hang out with.

I enjoy watching sports, but have no itch to hobnob with jocks that get buckets of bucks for their flair on gridiron, diamond, or hardwood; nor any desire for their autographs.

I appreciate talent, but can’t think of a single star of stage or cinema that I have a thirst to meet.

The big enchiladas don’t light my fire.

It’s being with brothers and sisters in Christ that sparks fire in my spirit. I wouldn’t swap my perch on their pew for a front-row seat at the Oscars.

“As for the saints in the land, they are the excellent ones,
in whom is all my delight” (Ps. 16:3 ESV).

 

The day Frederick Buechner graduated from Princeton he and his classmates were lining up to march to their commencement seats when a fellow-graduate moseyed down the column asking each person, “What are you going to do now?”

A few had a job lined up. A good number were headed to graduate school. But for some it was an unnerving question because of the long-range implication—not what were they going to do right away, but what were they going to do with the rest of their lives? Most didn’t have the faintest idea.

More telling than how they commenced following their commencement was how they progressed; what, in fact, did they do with the rest of their lives? That Princeton class graduated in 1947—69 years ago at this writing. If we had a list of those graduates we might recognize a few names. I don’t have such a list, so the only name I know from that class is Frederick Buechner. What he’s done—and is still doing—with the rest of his life, as a teacher, preacher, and writer is impressive.

As for the others? No doubt most of them got married, had kids. Some of the marriages worked out, some didn’t. Some of the kids turned out well, some didn’t. I think we can be sure of that.

We assume that most of them landed a job. What we don’t know is if their heart was in it. Did the career they chose pay off for them? Did they make enough money to enjoy themselves while they were working, and sock away enough to enjoy themselves once they weren’t? Did they contribute to the good of others? Give encouragement to those who needed a leg up?

What do they have to show for those accrued years? Have they lived with integrity and courage? Have they done something with the rest of their lives that has made their corner of the world a little better? Have they lived in such a way as to cause people to cry when they die?

“What are you going to do now?” asked Buechner’s classmate. Unless we’ve lost all sensitivity, it’s still an unsettling question—and not one that we can answer for someone else; only for ourselves.

Nor is it just a question for the up-and-coming cap-and-gown crowd. It’s for every one of us, at whatever age. It doesn’t have anything to do with the past, for there’s nothing we can do about the past. The question is, “What are you going to do now?” With the rest of your life? As Yogi had it, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.” If you’re still breathing, you still have a future.

It brings to mind a well-worn story …

When William Gladstone was prime minister of Great Britain, a young man approached him for advice. Gladstone asked him what his plans were.

“I’m going to complete my studies at Oxford,” he said.

“And then what?” asked the prime minister.

“I hope to study law and become a successful barrister.”

“And then what?”

“I plan to be elected to Parliament.”

“And then what?”

“I hope to be like you and become prime minister someday.”

“And then what?”

“I guess I will retire.”

“And then what?”

“Well, I suppose I will one day die.”

“That you will, young man, that you will. And then what?”

Look at the Hands

Feb
2016
06

It’s a story that begins badly, but has a happily-ever-after ending.

Two guys got it all wrong, but Jesus put it all right. (Lk. 24:13-31)

Their world had fallen apart. As they walked and talked, Jesus joined them; but they didn’t recognize him.

Maybe that was because they weren’t expecting to see him. After all, he was dead; crucified last Friday. He was a part of their past, not their present or future. They had hoped he was the Messiah who would restore Israel to power and prosperity. So much for that.

It had been three days since he was crucified; that put the final nail in the coffin of their hopes. Strange. It should have been a day of excited expectation, for he had repeatedly said he would be killed … and on the third day be raised to life. Today was that day! Indeed, some of the women who had gone to the tomb this morning said it was empty and that angels had told them he was alive. But who could believe such a thing? Dead is dead!

They knew what the prophets had said about the coming Messiah, and everything that had happened these past few days was in agreement with the prophetic words. But those words didn’t mesh with their hopes, desires, and expectations, so they tossed them in the trash bin of unbelief.

Does any of this track with your own experience?

Jesus said, “I am with you always,” a promise that David Livingston called “the word of a gentleman of the most strict and sacred honour.” He comes and walks beside you … but do you recognize him? Or even sense his presence?

If not, it may be because you aren’t expecting to see him. The personal presence of Jesus had thrill to it. But that’s history. What about the present; the now?

Life isn’t easy. You have a job to go to; a family to take care of; bills to pay. You get tired; you get sick. Sometimes things don’t go well, and it can grind you down. With so many things screaming for your attention, Jesus can become a Sunday thought—if even that—instead of a daily-walk thought.

Do you have some failed hopes in your relationship with Jesus? “We had hoped,” said the Emmaus disciples, “that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” But he hadn’t measured up to their expectations, their hopes.

Has he measured up to yours? Are you disappointed because he hasn’t stepped up and handled your troubles the way you expected him to? Discouraged because he hasn’t exercised his heavenly muscle to fulfill your earthly hopes?

Calvary hadn’t delivered what the Emmaus duo was hoping for. And you may not be fully content with what your life has gotten out of that event either.

They knew the Scriptures, but were slow to believe them.

How about you?

“For those who love God all things work together for good” (Rom. 8:28 ESV). “I believe that!” you say … or “I’m not so sure about that.”

“God has said, ‘I will never fail you. I will never forsake you’” (Heb. 13:5 NLT). “I believe that!” you say … or “I’m not so sure about that.”

When they came to their Emmaus home they urged Jesus to stay with them. At dinner he “took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him.” Recognized him, not because those hands that broke the bread were the same as they had seen before … but because they were different. These hands were wounded; nail-pierced.

“Unless I see the nail marks in his hands,” scoffed Thomas, “I will not believe.”

“Look at my hands,” Jesus said to him. “My Lord and my God!” declared Thomas.

Look at his hands.

Nail-pierced.

My Lord and my God!

I Forgot

Jan
2016
02

People avoided her. Thought she was whacko.

She claimed that she and Jesus talked one-on-one every night; said he told her about the shenanigans of people who thought their secrets were … well, secret.

Someone told her she should validate these alleged conversations by asking her minister if she was really talking with Jesus or hallucinating.

So happened that her minister was tormented by a sin he had fallen into many moons ago. He had prayed for forgiveness, but still had a feeling he was on thin ice. So when the woman asked him to legitimize her experience he told her the next time she talked to Jesus to ask him what the sin was that still had him spooked.

The next day he asked her if she had spoken with Jesus.

She said she had.

“What did he say my sin was?”

“He said he forgot.”

Now that’s a story about forgetting that’s worth remembering. God forgives and forgets sin.

Way back in Old Testament days God said the time was coming when he would make a new covenant with his people. The high point of the new treaty was thrillingly stated: “I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jer. 31:34 ESV).

Thank God we live on this side of that promise.

The sacrifices of the old covenant “were not able to clear the conscience,” but were only “external regulations applying until the time of the new order” (Heb. 9: 9, 10).

Under the old system there was “an annual reminder of sins” (Heb. 10:3). The best they could hope for was that the high priest’s sacrifice on the Day of Atonement would pay off their sins for a year; only to have them come back to haunt them twelve months later and have to pony up again. And again. And again. And again …

But “we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all … by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy” (Heb. 10:10, 14).

And that’s sealed with God’s promise: “Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more” (Heb. 10:17).

Read and rejoice …

As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us (Ps. 103:12).

 Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will never count against him (Rom. 4:7-8).

 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness (1 Jn. 1:9).

“Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful” (Heb. 10:23). You can put your weight down on God’s promise to forget what he forgives: “You have put all my sins behind your back” (Isa. 38:17). Out of sight. Left behind.

You may remember a forgiven sin.

But if you were to ask God what it was he would say, “I forgot.”

It Hurts to Let Go

Dec
2015
05

I had often enjoyed her friendly wave and cheerful smile; she was on cloud nine when working in the yard with her husband.

Then one day a door wreath rustled in the wind; the love of her life was gone.

I passed her house each morning and observed her becoming increasingly frail.

This morning a moving van at the curb somberly punctuated the end of years of joy-filled days. The dear lady tottered across the lawn, surveying what had meant so much for so long—her home, trees, flowers; a myriad of memories parading behind misting eyes. I sensed that she was loading the last—and heaviest—item; her heart.

Where was she moving? To live with her children? To Assisted Living? To a different city, away from familiar faces and places?

Wherever, she was letting go of her freedom, and it hurt.

It hurts to let go of health. To cope with pain, anxiety, fear; to live with the burden of being a burden—dependent, confined, fragile.

It hurts to let go of prosperity. I saw a friend plummet from boom to bust in a matter of months, buried by circumstances beyond his control. He handled it well, but it hurt.

It hurts to let go of those we love—to say goodbye to a son or daughter moving across the country or being deployed to the other side of the world.

It hurts to let go when death’s merciless grip pulls a companion, parent, child, or friend away from us.

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave,
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
                                            —Edna St. Vincent Millay

Pain is rude. It doesn’t wait for an invitation to visit; it shows up unannounced, unexpected, unwanted. And refuses to leave.

Oh how it hurts to let go.

♦♦♦♦♦♦♦

Dear God,

When things happen that hurt, we don’t need to feel guilty when we ask “Why?” do we?

Surely you know how badly it hurts to let go, for it had to hurt when you let go of your Son. It had to hurt when he let go of his heavenly home to live in earthly hovels; becoming poor that we might be rich.

Lord, do you have a word of encouragement for us when we’re hurting?

These troubles and sufferings of ours are, after all, quite small and won’t last very long … this short time of distress will result in God’s richest blessings upon us forever and ever! … The troubles will soon be over, but the joys to come will last forever (2 Cor. 4:17-18 TLB).

Thank you Father. That is what we needed to hear.

Elementary school. Sybil.

Sybil was poor and cross-eyed. She wore homemade dresses and thick glasses. They called her Four-Eyes.

The class bully got in her face and shouted, “You’re ugly, Sybil. Ugglllyyyy!” Kids laughed. Sybil cried.

She was too timid to talk back; too hurt to fight back. She just cowered alone in the corner until the bell rang. Wounded. Humiliated.

Junior high. Edward.

Edward was fat. His shirts were too tight and his pants too short. They didn’t make clothes to fit people like Edward.

He looked like a blimp. And that’s what they called him—Blimpy.

Edward didn’t have any friends. Not one. He didn’t hang around for extracurricular activities after the closing bell. Why stick around for more pain?

High school. Irma.

Irma was gangly and awkward. They called her Olive Oil, teased her about boyfriends she didn’t have, and dates that were only dreams. (No one ever asked Irma for a date.)

Irma was saucy. She’d square her shoulders, stiffen her spine, look you in the eye and with a defiant toss of her head, turn and walk away. (And cry into her pillow at night I suspect.)

College. Richard.

Richard was shaped funny. He had small shoulders and a concave chest and swayed back that sunk into a bulging belly and ponderous posterior. They called him Pearshape.

Richard didn’t buddy with anybody. He seldom spoke. And never smiled. He roomed alone. Studied alone. Ate alone. He never joined any clubs or attended any student events. He went out of his way to avoid contact with “Pearshape” hecklers.

It wasn’t Sybil’s fault that she was poor and plain.
It wasn’t Edward’s fault that he was bulky.
It wasn’t Irma’s fault that she was uncoordinated.
It wasn’t Richard’s fault that generations of genes had conspired against him.

I have no idea where they are, any of them. I hope life has treated them better later than it did earlier. I pray that they’re doing well and that they’re happy.

But I’m not just concerned about them. I’m concerned about me. Sometimes my tongue outruns my brain and spouts hurtful words. Even when I don’t say it I sometimes look at people and think it … Ugly. Fat. Stupid. Obnoxious.

As if my opinion is worth beans. It isn’t. As if my assessment makes me superior to those I judge. It doesn’t. My critical evaluation of others doesn’t really say much about them. But it says a lot about me … Harsh. Haughty. Unloving. Judgmental.

Father, I want to be like you. You don’t judge a person’s worth by his financial status, by her dress size, by where he lives, by what she drives. Every person is special to you.

Help me to see every person as beautiful. An original. Valuable. Special. Loved. A child of the King.

Please Father, make me nice.

Nothing is impossible with God.

Abraham and Sarah would soon have a hundred candles on their cake. They had no children, not one. So when God told them their descendants would be as numberless as the stars they cracked up.

“Is anything too hard for the Lord?” God asked. “I will return to you at the appointed time next year and Sarah will have a son.”

And sure enough, the following year Sarah cuddled a baby in her lap.

Nothing is impossible with God.

Mary was a typical teenager—ponytail, braces on her teeth—when angel Gabriel showed up at her door and told her she was going to have a baby.

“Get outta here. I’m a virgin. Unmarried.”

This is God’s doing Gabriel said—your baby will be “the Son of God.”

And by the way, your cousin Elizabeth “is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God.”

God’s good at impossible. Look at those three babies …

Isaac, Sarah’s Baby

When Isaac grew up he and his wife Rebekah had a son. They named him Jacob. God changed his name to Israel.

And there you go. Your Old Testament is wrapped in a package labeled Israel.

John, Elizabeth’s Baby

Angel Gabriel told Zechariah, “Your wife, Elizabeth, will bear you a son! And you are to name him John … he will be great in the eyes of the Lord … He will precede the coming of the Lord, preparing the people for his arrival.”

And there you go. John set the stage for Jesus’ ministry and pointed his first disciples to him. “Among those born of women there is no one greater than John,” Jesus said.

Jesus, Mary’s Baby

“He will be great,” said Gabriel. “The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David … his kingdom will never end.” And he whispered in Joseph’s ear, “You are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

And there you go. From that day ’til this, wherever his message has gone, lives have changed. People have become compassionate and generous—built churches, hospitals, schools, orphanages; emptied their pockets and given their lives for others.

Even so, his earthly life had a brutal ending. Whips. Nails. Thorns. Spit. Scorn. The Cross. He wanted out—“offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death” (Heb. 5:7).

In the garden he fell face down on the ground and prayed to be delivered from the ghastly ordeal. “Abba, Father … everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me.”

“Yet,” he added … “Yet not what I will, but what you will.”

Nothing is impossible with God—but not everything that is possible passes the test of his will. If he had stepped in and snatched the cup of death from the lips of his Son, the plan he put in place for our salvation would have been aborted.

Let your pains be made plain, your frustrations be made clear, your wishes be made known.

Level with him. Tell him where you hurt and what you want …

But don’t forget the P.S.

P.S. Yet not what I will, but what you will.