Chapter Two of an Unnamed Novel

The boy got up and reached for the tin dishpan hanging on the wall and set it on the stove.  He poured some water into it from the galvanized bucket on a short shelf next to the door, and then returned to his plate.

The only sound was ceramic scrape of a fork on plate as he finished his breakfast. The old man went out into the pre-dawn morning, the screen door slamming behind him. He called the horses out of the dark as if they were to appear in the corral before him. After he put feed sacks on the horses, he started the 1959 pickup and let it idle.

“Bring the Coleman,” he hollered to the boy who was drying off his plate and stacking it on the shelf. The boy stepped on to the porch and tossed out the dishwater. He returned the dishpan to its nail, pulled on his jean jacket, and grabbed the lantern from a hook in the middle of the room.

“Go get the tack,’ said the old man, “and let’s load it up in the back of the truck.”

The boy ducked to enter the low-ceilinged saddle house, drug out the old man’s saddle. Resting it on his right thigh, he walked stiff-legged over to the truck as if limping with some unimagined wound. He tossed the saddle in the back of the blue truck and went back for his.

The old man took the feed sacks off of the horses and called for the bridles.

“Let’s get these horses loaded in the trailer,” he said.

The old man unbuckled the bridle midway up the jaw line strap and carefully wrapped it around his horse’s neck. Taking care to avoid the ears of the animal, he offered the bit to the big bay gelding and the horse nibbled at it with his lips and then received the bit into his mouth. The old man pulled the leather strap up behind the ears and re-buckled the bridle, patted the horse on the neck and led him to the back of the trailer.

The horses loaded, the old man’s favorite horse named Curtis and a dapple-gray jug-headed horse named Johnny Reb, they started down the mountain towards the holding pins at San Antonio Mountain. The large, free-standing dome-shaped mountain in northern New Mexico rises in relative isolation above sagebrush flats about nine miles south of the Colorado border. There they would join other cowboys, a hodge-podge group of hands, some working for the day—others in from the owner’s ranch in the four corners area. Fifteen hundred head of steers had been trucked in and pinned up waiting to be driven up the road to the ranch where they would fatten up on the rich high mountain grass for the next three months.

The rough road tossed the pickup truck back and forth as gears downshifted and the engine whined. The old man and the boy didn’t talk for five miles. The boy’s eyes were heavy but he dared not sleep. That would be lazy. That would be a sin. So, he looked out the window, feigning interest in the passing shadows, but secretly let his eyes close to find their own nestled comfort.

The old man took the pipe out of his mouth and cleared his throat.

“Now, when we get down to those pens I want you to unload the horses and make sure they get some water. I am going to go look up Dick Davis and round up the boys to line out how we are going to get the cattle up the mountain on this drive,” he said.

“What will I do on the cattle drive?” the boy asked.

“Drag. You’ll be in the back of the herd.”

“Why?”

“It’s where you belong.”

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CRT and Flannelgraphs

Elton Trueblood once said something like, “Baptist are as old Abraham. We have evidence of that when Abraham said to his nephew, “Lot, you go your way and I’ll go mine.” That reminds me of the TV and magazine ads of the 1960s by Tareyton cigarettes picturing a smoker with a black eye touting, “Us Tareyton smokers would rather fight than switch!”

Baptist are known for quarreling and fighting. We are also known for being against social ills. In my first pastorate there hung a “Church Covenant” on the wall of our church in the auditorium that said in black and white lettering that we were against dancing, alcohol, tobacco, and gambling.

Baptist don’t have winsome reputation in this world except among Baptist. Jesus had a reputation. The Pharisees had a reputation. Jesus’ reputation was that he loved the marginalized, powerless, and outcasts. The Pharisees were known for what they were against.

Yesterday I went to a denominational meeting in my home state and there were five resolutions put before the messengers of our state denomination. Three of the five were glorified “thank yous” for various acts of service by leadership in the last year. Two were resolutions that were against something.  One was against women having the title of and any function of pastor in the local church. The other was against Critical Race Theory (CRT).

(I tried to amend the resolution but it failed and it wasn’t even close. My amendment was not in favor or against CRT. It was simply being FOR racial reconciliation.)

Thank yous (internal to our tribe) and what we are against (threats to our tribe). Why do we even do this anymore? Resolutions should be banned in all Baptist meetings. They set us up to be critical and divisive rather than loving and winsome to the very people we want to reach. Get rid of them, I say.

Why can’t we be a group of people who are FOR something? We are FOR the Gospel. We are FOR the dignity of all humanity for they are image bearers. We are FOR people of color because they matter to God. And if they matter to God, they should matter to us.

I am FOR women in the ministry, because they are gifted and called.  And there is enough ambiguity in the Biblical text for different interpretations about this matter. Reputable scholars have valid and differing opinions about women in the ministry. I am for women pastors, but the church I adore, and pastor is not ready for that shift, and I’ll not lead her to do so. Good people can disagree agreeably.

My 84-year-old father told me that he remembered a time when a famous missionary to China, Bertha Smith, was asked to speak at a chapel service at Southwestern Theological Seminary. She had a flannel graph brought out and set on the stage beside her. Then she said, “Gentlemen, I am not supposed to speak to men unless you are boys.” Then she quoted verse in Matthew 18:33 that said, And (Jesus) said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. So, listen to me today as a boy, because I have something to say to you.”

Dad said she gave an altar call at the end of her “lesson” calling for repentance of sin and commitment to prayer. The altar was filled with broken and kneeling preachers.

Interestingly, the best speakers at our meeting yesterday were an African American man who was outside our tribe who spoke about racism. And close behind him was a fifth-grade schoolteacher who gave her endorsement of a new executive for our denomination. And yet the overwhelming passage of the two resolutions condemning CRT and women in ministry was like I was watching a train wreck and no matter what I tried, it couldn’t stop it.

I’ve said for years that children are wonderful at receiving information but terrible at interpreting information. They often can’t interpret dad’s surely mood as him having terrible day at the office, they interpret it as something is wrong with them—I must have done something to disappoint dad.

The conservative landscape in the church of my youth leaves us vulnerable to being misunderstood by people we are trying to reach with the Gospel of grace. I long for a time when we can unequivocally support women in ministry and open mindedly study why people of color are still being discriminated against in our culture, and stand with them in every way possible because they are the beautiful beloved of God.

I ache for us to follow Jesus in his love for those who feel overlooked or unwelcomed at the table of grace. For if the Gospel is not good news for everybody, it is not good news for anybody.

To quote the great theologian Michel Scott to my fellow Southern Baptists, “Why are you the way that you are? I hate so much about the things that you choose to be.” – Michael Scott to Toby Flenderson, (The Office 2.22)

I want to follow Jesus so closely that the dust from His sandals is all over my life.

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Chapter One of an Unnamed Novel

It is midnight, 1969. 

The air is blue.

The mountain is blue in its silhouette

against the open galaxies.

Long before the earth stirred, the old man in the cabin banged the cast iron stove to life. He sat in his chair, pulled out the tobacco from his shirt pocket and filled his pipe, fingering the fillings and pressing them deep into the bowl. He struck a match, pulled the pipe to his pursed lips, and sucked in the fire. Shaking out the flame, he held the match mindlessly in his hand as he stared at the ticking stove.

The stove heated up and soon the coffee pot spit black liquid beads that sizzled all around the hot surface. The old man leaned forward and pushed himself out of his chair, unfolding like a rusted hinge. He poured himself a cup of coffee and went to the window, his pipe in one hand, and slurped as he stared outside.

After a few gulps, he shouted to the other room where a boy lay cocooned under three layers of wool blankets, “Better get in here and make out your breakfast.”

He opened the door to the icebox, and pulling out the bacon, eggs, and a can of biscuits setting them on the table.

“Come on, now.” he said with a gravel voice.

A kerosene lantern flickered on the table beside the bed as the blankets moved. A thatch of blond hair was first to poke out and two bright blue eyes focused on the ceiling. Frosted breath floated over his lips, then disappeared.

He slowly spilled out of bed and pulled on the denim jeans, stiff from weeks of unwashed wear. Taking care to avoid the Mill Brothers Coffee can the old man used as a slop jar, he pushed his feet into his boots and stepped into the warmth of the outer room.

“Boy, you’d sleep your life away if it were up to you.”

The boy rubbed the sleep from his eyes and saw the clock on the table— 3:30 AM.

He then creaked open the door and stepped out on the porch, where cold, New Mexico air took a slap at him. Shuttering, he took three steps off the porch and peed through the rail fence. The stars hung suspended on black velvet overhead, a heavy stomp and snuffle came from the dim outline of a horse only a few feet away. A shiver jolted through his back as he finished.  He zipped himself up and stepped back into the smoky warmth of the two-room cabin and the smell of fresh coffee and the sizzling promise of breakfast. But the promise wasn’t for him.

The boy made his own breakfast, as he did every morning, drank coffee, black, as he did every morning and studied the old man through the sheer curtains of smoke. The old man just sat there puffing and staring at the stove.

Without as much as throwing a glance the boy’s way, the old man said, “Quick as you get your dishes washed, let’s feed those horses and get ‘em loaded. We need to get down the mountain.”

“Yes, sir.”

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The Gospel of the Good Finish

In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you. 1 Thessalonians 5:18

“The worst moment for an atheist is when he is really thankful and has no one to thank.” – G.K. Chesterton

Many who have given up on our faith will point to the problem of pain and suffering in the world. Of man’s inhumanity to man. Of hurricanes and tornados and other natural disasters killing people. They will ask, “How do we account for the problem of evil and suffering in the world?”

Most of us have had a screen door on our homes at one time or another in our lives. Screen doors are designed to let a breeze in and keep pesky insects out. You know what it is like to stand at a screen door and look outside and watch children playing in your front yard, a breeze moves the leaves on a tree, and we watch the clouds in the sky go floating by.

But imagine your eyes focusing, not on the playing children and the blooming flowers in your flowerbed, but on the holes in the screen. If you stare at the holes, I promise you won’t see the flowers. Too much time watching cable news, listening to talk radio, or hanging around people who confirm your biases can be the equivalent of fixating on the holes in the screen door.

Wendell Berry reminds us, “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.”

There is the problem of evil. It’s a very real problem. But there is also the problem of good.

What do you do with the feeling in your soul when you stand, with your feet in the water, at the ocean’s edge? What do you do with that feeling when you hold in your arms your first child or, better yet, your very first grandchild and listen to their little squeals?

What do we do with the feeling we have well up in our hearts when we listen to Charlotte Church singing Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Pie Jesu, or stand before a Van Goh, or finish reading a poem by William Stafford?

If you are struggling with faith, my suggestion is for you to puzzle over why you feel gratitude for the transcendent beauty you see in the world.

I also think it is a good idea to develop the discipline of gratitude. Gratitude for followers of Jesus is a discipline. Because, if you’re like me, the assumption is that gratitude is a mood. But it is hard to command an emotion. If you doubt that, next time your spouse gets up set, tell them to “calm down.” No one in the history of saying “calm down” has ever calmed down because someone told them to calm down.

Parents have a question that they ask their children. All parents do this. After someone gives their child a gift or does them a favor, the parent will say to the child, “what do you say?” How is a kid supposed to respond?

“Thank You.”

If you want to see the joy-factor increase in your life I suggest you practice noticing the beauty and the good in this world.

Poet Mary Oliver puts it this way,

Instructions for living a life.

Pay attention.

Be astonished.

Tell about it.

I am a firm believer that how we live every day of our life will greatly determine how we die. Jonathan Greene wrote a book called, “Famous Last Words.” And the whole book just consists of the last words of hundreds and hundreds of people before they died.

My favorite is a quote from a guy in the Civil War, General Sedgewick. He was in battle. His last words were,

“They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist—.”

The two authors who have had the greatest impact on my life have both died in recent years. I quote them all the time in my sermons and in conversations. I am very interested in how each of these men ended their life here on this good earth. What were their last words? I’ve included and adapted two pieces written by two authors who knew the men very well.

First, from Bill Gaultiere. You can read his entire tribute to Dallas by clicking https://www.soulshepherding.org/personal-reflections-from-dallas-willards-funeral/

Dallas’ last days were painful. But even as he laid on his bed suffering, he held Jesus’ hand in the Kingdom of the Heavens. With characteristic gentleness and kindness, he kept saying, “Thank you.” To doctors, nurses, visitors, and God. “Thank you… Thank you… Thank you… Thank you…”

The nurses were drawn to his positive attitude in suffering and how appreciative of them he was. They heard him and his visitors reciting Scriptures, singing hymns, talking about a God of love, and praying. The way that Dallas was dying drew the people around him to Jesus Christ and our God of love. This is the way of Jesus on the cross and it’s the way of his followers. How we respond to suffering is often our very best witness for Christ.

One of the nurses looked up Dallas Willard on the Internet and realized not only that he was famous but that there were some people who were saying mean things about him. She said, “I don’t get it. Why would religious people hate this good man who says that God loves everyone?”

God showed his love to Dallas in the hospital. For instance, Dallas’ had a remarkable experience of God. He said, “I taught on the Great Cloud of Witnesses and now I’m experiencing it. I am in heaven’s hallway and there is a large community coming for me. They are the most loving persons I’ve ever been around.”

Finally, at the very end, his last words were once again, “Thank you.” He didn’t even name anyone but I’m sure he was looking into the shining face of Jesus as he was walking all the way through the hallway into heaven.

Second, from Winn Collier’s authorized biography of Eugene Peterson A Burning in My Bones.

The final couple of days [of Eugene’s life], he said thank you over and over again. When anyone fixed his pillow or helped him with a drink: “Thank you.” Often, he’d simply mumble under his breath, “Thank you.” And this was gratitude infused with joy. One afternoon, [his children] Eric, Elizabeth, Leif, and Amy were all sitting next to him, lined up on one side of his bed. Eugene opened his eyes, and it took him a moment to gain focus and recognize who was there. Then his eyes went bright, and he broke out in that wide smile. “Wow! he exclaimed.

Those final hours, Elizabeth sat with him, holding his hand, and singing hymns. Sensing the end was near, she called for Eric. Then, the moment—last breaths, new tears, the stepping out into a broader place, a call from a deep, familiar voice, a call to him from a farther shore than we can see. It was time.

Last words, then barely discernible but sounding like thank you.

Then, unhurried and gentle, Eugene died.

Oh, to be loved by God. To be given the most precious gift, His Son, Jesus Christ, who died on a cross for me.

What do you say?

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My Mother Has Cancer

My mother has terminal cancer. I was able to spend twenty-four hours with her recently. They were great moments. I will cherish them the rest of my life, because we don’t know how fast the cancer is spreading and how effective the treatment will be. I am praying for many more moments, but we just don’t know.

After giving me the rundown on the cancer in her body, she and my brother told us about the four tumors in her brain. I asked her how it is impacting her cognition, and while my brother was telling us that she gets confused sometimes and repeats herself, my mother was looking at the floor and then started drumming her fingers across her lips and blowing raspberries. (The universal and pejorative sign when I was growing up for someone who had completely lost their marbles)

My brother said, “If it’s not one thing, its your mother.”

We all laughed.

Lessons I Learned from Visiting My Mother

There is no tomorrow, only today.

If you think there is always tomorrow, you are fooling yourself. You can’t guarantee your own next breath, much less anyone else’s. You have today. That is all you have. You have something to say? Say it. You have something to do? Do it. You have someplace to go? Go. You have a song to sing? Sing it. You have a nail to hammer? Nail it. Don’t wait.

The person sitting in front of you at any given moment deserves your undivided attention.

It’s about them, not you. I’ve sat with countless people whose frame of reference was all about them. What they were doing. What God was doing through them and what was happening in their world. But when you are with another image bearer, you are sitting with someone of immense value to the God who created them. To not be interested in the person sitting in front of you is an afront to the God who impressed them with his image.

Being able to look someone who is dying in the eye and talk about death is part of what it means to be fully alive.

I was compelled to tell my mother exactly what I thought of her spiritual life. It was a firm and affirming conversation. I didn’t lie to her. I didn’t tell her things to cheer her up. I told her the truth as I saw it. She has lived a spiritual life. And from the chair I am sitting in, she has lived a wonderful Jesus-dependent life. Her faith isn’t moralistic, even though it is moral. Her faith isn’t driven by church attendance, even though she rarely missed church. Her faith isn’t about theology and the Bible, even though she is well-versed in both. Her faith is strong because she knows down deep in her soul the Man from Galilee. And I was able to tell her that. I was able to ask her about her soul and tell her that her faith is very evident as she approaches death. While it was an unusual conversation, it was not a painful conversation.

All of this brings me to a few quotes that came to mind as I have reflected on my time with my mother:

One from the theologian Tim McGraw: Live like you were dying.

I am learning that as someone I love goes through the process of coming to terms with their death, I must live my life as if everyone were dying. Because in a very real sense they are. The difference between them, me, and my mom is that my mom knows her death is near. The rest of us think ours is somewhere else on the calendar. So, say what you are going to say; do what you are going to do. Do it like someone is dying—because they and you are. Last time I checked the death rate is still hovering around 100%.

Another from author Annie Dillard: How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.

Every moment is holy. Every moment counts. Every moment is part of eternity. Living in the present moment is so important to someone who can see the finish line of this life. You can’t change the past no matter the regrets. You have no assurance of the future, so stop piddling your life away playing solitaire or binge-watching Seinfeld.

And finally, Jesus reminds us: Give us this day our daily bread.

Jesus didn’t say, “Give us this week our weekly bread” or “Give us this month our monthly bread.” He said sustenance for our body and soul comes to us daily—just like mana from the Old Testament. When the children of Israel would try to hoard that “wonder bread” that fell out of the sky every morning like dew on the ground, it would spoil. The same is true when we try to hoard the seconds, minutes, and hours of our life as if we could spend them tomorrow on something valuable. No. We have today. That’s it. Can’t hoard time.

It’s not morbid to talk about death to a believer in Jesus who is dying. When you talk about death, it makes the moment burst forth with life. As I said, my mom sometimes repeated herself because of the cancer in her brain. One of the things she said several times in our visit was, “Going through this is hard, but I am going to be alright because I am not alone. I have Jesus.”

I hope you have my Mom’s Jesus.

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God’s Slow Work

Definition of arrogant: exaggerating or disposed to exaggerate one’s own worth or importance often by an overbearing manner (Merriam-Webster)

Years ago, I was flying to Nashville for a trustee meeting of Lifeway Christian Resources. When I fly from one city to another, I usually put on headphones, screw up my thick brow over my deep-set eyes—a look that might give Mike Tyson pause—and sit in such a way as to dare anyone to occupy the middle seat next to me.

I secured my earbuds, pulled out my book, fixed my scowl and got as comfortable as my six feet four-inch-tall wide body can get in my window seat. The flight attendant announced that this was going to be a full flight. Knowing someone was surely going to sit next to me, I did not loosen my stink eye one bit. I use it to mark territory on a plane. An older gentleman with a shock of snow-white hair, sloping shoulders, and thick glasses sat in the aisle seat.

People kept flowing by towards the back of the plane. My middle seat remained open. My stink-eye was working.

Just as I was about to relax my brow, a middle-aged, sandy-haired, lady came down the aisle with a huge, braided tote slung over one shoulder and jewel-encrusted reading glasses hanging on for dear life at the end of her nose.

“Excuse me!” she said to the older man in the aisle seat as she sidled past him and sat down in my carefully guarded middle seat.

After she put her seat belt on and got situated, she promptly ignored my warning signs of scowl, headphones, open book, and started talking to me. I had to take my headphones off to hear her. I exchanged clipped pleasantries with her, then she turned to speak to the older man. I sensed an opportunity to re-load my headphones and my stink eye.

Just open up your book, turn the music up, never look at her and she will leave you alone, I thought. 

It worked for about 30 minutes until she tapped me on the arm and asked me a question. “What book are you reading?” I held the spine up so that she could see that it read Crucial Conversations

“What’s it about?” she asked.

I gave her a clipped and terse synopsis of the book.

I began to read again while she pulled out the reading material she had brought on board. It was a copy of the latest supermarket tabloid with headlines like “Hillary Clinton gives birth to Alien Baby” and other bizarre story titles. She spread the paper wide, leaned her arm against mine, taking my arm rest. Our arms were touching. I had to move even further away. The more I moved away from her the more she spread out.

Twenty minutes later she folded her paper up and went to the restroom. I closed my book and rested my head in my hands, elbows on my knees and sighed. I was so weary of this person, and it was only an hour into my two- and half-hour flight.

She came back and saw me with my head down and as soon as she was seated and re-belted, she began to rub my shoulders.

“You must be very tense,” she said. 

What do you do at this point? I let her violate my shoulders for what I assumed was the appropriate time for these things and turned and smiled and said thanks. I opened up my book again, not reading—just staring at the page.

About this time the man in the aisle seat pulled a very worn Bible out of his briefcase and began to read. This caught her eye, and she began to ask questions about God. The older man smiled and answered every one of her questions with grace.

As I sat there seething and pouting at this woman who had dared to interrupt my travel preferences and routine, I overheard the older man share his faith with this woman in the most winsome, natural and attractive way. She shared some of her pain and struggles and he gently asked her if he could pray for her. He took her hand and pressed it between both of his aged-spotted hands and prayed sweet and low with her.

I remember thinking, “You want so badly to be like Jesus, but when God brings someone who needs grace in the worst way, you treat them as if they were an annoyance. You have a long way to go.”

Author John Ortberg has a reflective question he often asked himself, “Is the life you are inviting others to live the life you are living yourself?”

That was a painful question for me back then. I would much prefer to invite others to live the life they should live if they followed my advice. The success of my giftedness was eroding my character. I was leaning on my giftedness and neglecting the development of my soul.

You know, we don’t have much to say about our own giftedness. But our character is the one thing that we can cooperate with Jesus and see some incremental improvement. Its available to everyone. But we don’t live in a culture that makes us want it.

The thing about Christ-like character formation is it’s not very fast, not very glamorous, and it won’t really get you very much at all—except life with God, except the healing of our broken, hungry, wounded, hurting, tired heart, and the satisfaction of our souls—things that giftedness can never achieve.  

It will also give you the quiet confidence to sit with an open Bible on your lap and explain the Gospel to an annoying woman on an airplane at 35,000 feet.

I’d like to believe, after all these years later, if given another opportunity, my eyes would be soft and inviting to anyone open to hearing about the God who can change the most arrogant of hearts.

So, if you find yourself on an airplane and you see a very large man in your section—sit right down and we will enjoy our time together.

However, mind that middle seat.

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The Dark Night

Hello darkness, my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains
Within the sound of silence
~ Paul Simon

There is a place in the life of everyone who follows the Man from Galilee that is dark and desolate. A place of confusion. A place of unanswered prayers. A place of sorrow and despair. It goes by many names: crisis of belief, spiritual depression, desolation, wilderness wanderings, the wall, and dark night of the soul.

It can be a place of catastrophic destruction due to a self-inflicted wound like a moral failure. Or you are the victim of someone else’s selfish and sinful choice. It can be a health scare. It can be a hidden addiction that has wormed its way to the surface of your life and no longer stays hidden. It can be professional or relational failure. It can be a growing disillusionment that the life you have built is not fulfilling the deepest longings of your soul.

Sometimes, through no fault of your own, life just kicks you in the teeth and darkness becomes your boon companion.

No one is exempt from this midnight at high noon. No one. Moses went through this place, Elijah did, so did King David. Jeremiah lived in the desert of desolation all his life. John the Baptizer knows this dark place and so did his cousin from Nazareth when he found himself in a garden called Gethsemane.

In reading through Eugene Peterson’s book Tell it Slant, I found a way to be as we travel through our own places of abandonment and desolation. I owe much of this material to Mr. Peterson. We want to escape our spiritual darkness, we want pain relief, but often that doesn’t come. Rather than hitting the escape button or jumping back into the white-water rapids of busyness, I wonder if we would do well to do what Jesus did when faced with his dark night of the soul. I will frequently refer to this place of desolation as “the wall.”

Follow me through the prayers of Jesus when his soul despaired even unto death.

“My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” Matthew 26:39

Jesus prays his way into and through his wall—death on the cross. In the praying, death acquires an unguessed dimension: no longer a dead end but passageway to resurrection, no longer a terminus, but a beginning.

When we pray, we willingly participate in what God is doing, without knowing precisely what God is doing, how God is doing it, or when we will know what is going on—if ever.

Like Jesus, this is a time to pray what we want, not what we ought to want.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Mark 15:34

Walls cut us off from our moorings. Other than death, walls are the ultimate incomprehensibility. I no longer belong. I no longer fit. And I am not given an explanation.

Jesus’ way of dealing with is wall is to walk into the midst of it an let the wall do its deeper work on his soul.

The writer of Hebrews reminds us in chapter 5:8, Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.

It is not easy. Nobody said it would be easy. It wasn’t for Jesus.

Praying this fragment prayer reveals the worst that comes to us in a life of belief in God: the experience of absolute abandonment by God.

“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” Luke 23:34

Often, when we go through our wall, those around us will be just as confused at the darkness and uncertainty as we are. Some will want us to snap out of it and be happy. Others will try to fix us with encouraging words and platitudes. Or by giving us unsolicited advice.

Here a posture of grace and mercy is needed. Hessed, lovingkindness, will be needed in large doses. For “Job’s friends” can be relentlessly brutal.

“I thirst.” John 19:28

This is a one-word prayer in Greek: dipso. Think about what Jesus prayed on the cross—sense the abandonment, forgiveness, and relinquishment. And now—pain: the body shutting down, lungs failing, heart failing, kidney’s failing. In Jesus’ wall this leave-taking of his body was experienced as excruciating thirst.

We can never underestimate the impact of the wall or dark night of the soul on our physical state. Pay attention to what your body is saying to you.

It is not unreasonable to ask God for relief from the pain we go through as we pass through our wall.

“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Luke 23:46

This is a prayer of trust. When we pray this prayer, we don’t know what might happen next, but we are releasing ourselves into the care and control of the one who calls us “beloved”.

Jesus prayed this trusting prayer in circumstances that were anything but secure and safe. When you pray this prayer through your wall, picture being in the company of Jesus as he utters it from the cross.

Remember: Jesus was not giving up; he was entering in—entering into the work of salvation. And when we pray this prayer as we go through our wall; we are entering into the work—deep work—of what the wall can accomplish in our souls.

What we can’t know in the midst of the darkness of our soul is that there is life on the other side that is unspeakable and full of glory. There is resurrection morn. There is exaltation, if not in this life, in the life to come.

It is our outcome, it is our destination, it is our birthright as the beloved of God. In the meantime, pray and trust God to remember you.

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The Art of Giving

Our greatest fulfillment lies in giving ourselves to others. Although it often seems that people give only to receive, I believe that, beyond all our desires to be appreciated, rewarded and acknowledged, there lies a simple and pure desire to give.

– Henri Nouwen

Most of us believe that to mark this world, we need to do something big. We need to pastor a large church, get published, or establish an orphanage in a third world country. We are so grandiose in our sense of what counts as significant. That is not the Jesus way.

But faithful givers have a way of marking our lives. I’ve had more than a few saints you will never meet that have impacted my life because of their giving lifestyle.

Let me tell you about my deacon.

When I moved out of my parent’s house into my first apartment, I was assigned to his deacon family. He took that seriously. He was a strange and wonderful man. The term “geek” was not used back in the mid-seventies, but if it had it would been how I would have described my deacon. He had a pock-marked face and a bulbous nose. He was a large a portly man with narrow and sloping shoulders. When he smiled, which he did a lot, he had a gap between his front teeth.

In those days, I was in my rebellion. The only reason I attended church was because my mother said I could come to the house for Sunday dinner if I came to church. And every week it seemed she made a pot roast, rolls, and peach cobbler.

My deacon knew I was troubled. (Dad was my pastor and he and the deacons probably prayed for me in deacon’s meetings.) My deacon would write me notes and tell me he prayed for me. He would seek me out when I came to church. He found out that I loved sports, so he took me to Denver Nuggets and Denver Broncos games—many times. That cost him time and money to do that.

All the while I lived a prodigal life. I was living in complete defiance of Jesus. But my deacon didn’t give up on me. He kept praying and showing up in my life in any way he could think of.

Finally, in 1978 I rededicated my life to Jesus. Back in those days, that was a big deal. My dad always offered an altar call in the church he pastored and so I walked forward to make my decision public. The first person to grab me and hug me that Sunday was my deacon.

You will never meet him. I don’t even know if he is still alive. But that goofy, geeky, awkward deacon marked my life.

My deacon’s name was Clint Spearman. We named our second son Clint.

Our culture, country, and town will be changed not through legislation, rules, and winning the culture wars. Up there will not come down here by returning to the values and lifestyles of the 40’s and 50’s. The Kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven when we follow Jesus in his incarnation lifestyle.

The late author and speaker Brennan Manning tells an amazing story about how he got the name “Brennan.”

While growing up, his best friend was Ray. The two of them did everything together: bought a car together as teenagers, double-dated together, went to school together and so forth. They even enlisted in the Army together, went to boot camp together and fought on the frontlines together.

One night while sitting in a foxhole, Brennan was reminiscing about the old days in Brooklyn while Ray listened and ate a chocolate bar. Suddenly a live grenade came into the foxhole. Ray looked at Brennan, smiled, dropped his chocolate bar and threw himself on a live grenade.

It exploded, killing Ray, but Brennan’s life was spared.

When Brennan became a priest, he was instructed to take on the name of a saint. He thought of his friend, Ray Brennan. So, he took on the name Brennan. Years later he went to visit Ray’s mother in Brooklyn. They sat up late one night having tea when Brennan asked her, “Do you think Ray loved me?”

Mrs. Brennan got up off of the couch, shook her finger in front of Brennan’s face and shouted, “Jesus Christ—what more could he have done for you?!”

Brennan said that at that moment he experienced an epiphany. He imagined himself standing before the cross of Jesus wondering, Does God really love me? and Jesus’ mother Mary pointing to her son, saying, “Jesus Christ—what more could he have done for you?”

The cross of Jesus is God’s way of doing all he could do for us. And yet we often wonder, Does God really love me? Am I important to God? Does God care about me?

And Jesus’ mother responds, “What more could he have done for you?”

For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. John 3:16

We are never more like God than when we give.

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My Oldest Friend’s Voice

We live, in fact, in a world starved for solitude, silence, and private: and therefore starved for meditation and true friendship. – C.S. Lewis

My oldest friend called me on my birthday a few months ago. Here is how he greeted me, “Hey, what are you doing?” I am blown away that I knew who it was when he said “Hey.”

When I heard his voice, I was filled with joy and delight. His voice brought back waves of wonderful coming-of-age memories. Memories of fort-building, cowboy and Indian wars, climbing mountains and a rock formation called “Split Rock,” basketball victories, and Junior High prayer meetings.  

I don’t know if we will ever fulfill the vow we made at age thirteen to take our future wives to the grassy ledge on the upper part of Split Rock. I don’t think we could make the climb. We are both grandparents now. Don’t know if we will ever go back to the caves, we found on a mountain we called “Old Baldy” with the bats hanging upside down. We even named the caves: TAP and JOC. (Those are our initials: Timothy Allen Peggram and Joseph Oren Chambers.) I always liked his initials better. Sounded cool, “TAP.” Saying mine out loud made me blush at age twelve, “JOC.”

Here is the truth: Tim’s voice is carved deeply into my memory. I may not hear that voice very often, but it is so important to me that there is instant recognition, immediate affection and joy.

Knowing a friend over time arouses deep affection.

The older I get the more important two things have become: Old friends and poetry. Here is a selection from John O’Donohue that I like a lot:

A Friendship Blessing

May you be blessed with good friends.
May you learn to be a good friend to yourself.
May you be able to journey to that place in your soul where
there is great love, warmth, feeling, and forgiveness.
May this change you.
May it transfigure that which is negative, distant, or cold in you.
May you be brought in to the real passion, kinship, and affinity of belonging.
May you treasure your friends.
May you be good to them and may you be there for them;
may they bring you all the blessing, challenges, truth,
and light that you need for your journey.
May you never be isolated.
May you always be in the gentle nest of belonging with your anam ċara.

Here’s hoping you find a friend that blesses you like my old friend blesses me.

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Those People

When God saw…how (those people) turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind… Jonah 3:10

In the early years as a pastor in Oklahoma, kids would go to church camp and return to our little church and give testimony’s about what God did in their lives and I will never forget one kid describing his experience by saying, “The preacher gave a powerful sermon on sin and it was terribly convicting and I went forward, confessed my sin and cried like a baby.  Repentance is hard, I hope I never have to do that again.”

Repent, and Ye shall be saved.  Repentance is hard.

Culturally we tend to moth-ball the world “repent” and we assume that the word means in essence, “You should feel really bad about something.”

Well, I want to redeem the word. Because the original intent of the word was not connected to immoral behavior. In fact, the word was not originally a religious word at all. It was used in the Monday-through-Saturday world of ancient times. It is a word that simply meant “change directions.”

To repent is to become aware of God’s invitation into the kingdom, recoil with awareness of your sin and brokenness, and rethink your strategy for living, now that the option of the kingdom is at hand.~~Dallas Willard

Repentance is the fundamental way that we respond to what God has done to rescue us and His creation in Jesus.

A funny thing happened on the way to the apocalypse, the Ninevites believed God.

Why use Jonah? God could have written that eight-word message in the sky. God could have gone all Shrek on them and had a donkey walk through preaching that message. I mean, we’ve already seen he is not opposed to using animals to do his work.

The Word of the Lord came to Jonah two times, he’s beaten up by a storm, almost drowns, is swallowed by a great fish, then unceremoniously vomited out onto the shores so that Jonah finally is at a place where he is ready to say, “Okay! I’ll go to Nineveh. In fact, I’ll go to Denver, Las Vegas, Nineveh, or even Hartsel—just don’t put me back inside Shamu!”

He is not very impressive as he walks into Nineveh. Jonah smells bad, his face is blotchy, his clothes are half-eaten away from stomach bile in the belly of the fish, he has kelp hanging from his ear and a wild crazed look on his face and all he is saying is, “Repent! The end of the world is at hand!” Come to think of it, I might repent if I saw that coming at me.

He doesn’t explain who God is or preach a sweet soft message of love and grace. There is no reflective music at the end of his sermon, no tear-jerking story, no poem, no dim lights. And it is an eight-word sermon. He doesn’t even tell them what they can do to avoid the judgment. He just says, “Forty days and you are toast.” And yet God uses it mightily and the people turn towards God.

God changed his mind and did not destroy the Ninevites. Was God playing a game? Was He faking it? No. There is a lot of mystery here, but the vital thing for us to see is that God turns towards these broken people in mercy, grace, and love. God has set His grace with a hair-trigger and has it pointed at this sorry, dark world and says, “Give me a reason!”

All we have to do is flinch.

The Ninevites have turned towards God and God has turned towards the Ninevites, now Jonah needs to turn towards them. Through clenched teeth, Jonah says, “I knew it! God, you are a sucker for sackcloth and ashes every time. All they have to do is sniffle, pray and tear their clothes and you are ready to forgive and love them.”

While the Ninevites practiced genocide as a part of their scorched earth strategy in war, Jonah was perfectly willing to pay for his ticket buy some popcorn and Dr. Pepper, and watch God wipe them off the face of the earth. What’s the difference? God refuses to settle for the violence in Nineveh or the poisonous violence in Jonah’s own religious heart.

Angry Crowd

We do this with external behaviors all the time. There is me and then there are “those people.” Political conservatives look down on liberals as weak. Liberals look down on conservatives as stupid. Country music lovers look down on jazz lovers as arrogant and snotty. And Jazz lovers don’t even think about country music lovers at all.

But the gospel of the Kingdom of God says both you and “those people” are equally broken and equally loved by God. The Gospel of the Kingdom turns us towards God in humility and turns us towards “those people” and helps us to see them as people who are beloved of God.

So, dear friends, repent and ye shall be saved.

At least that is an option for us now that the Kingdom of God is at hand—in the Jesus Way.

There is a scene in the film The Mission that to me personally, is one the greatest moments in all cinema. Robert DeNiro plays a slave trader in colonial Latin America. He had dedicated himself to capturing Indians and selling them as slaves. Jeremy Irons plays a Jesuit missionary who helped convert the Indians, and who defended them.

When DeNiro is thrown in prison for murder, Irons shows him mercy and ransoms him to come to serve in the jungle mission. DeNiro is so overwhelmed by this act of grace that he insists on making the long journey to the mountain mission dragging his armor in a bundle behind him. He drags the weight of his sin and his filth to the top — where he meets the same people, now Christians, whose families he had been pressing into slavery. And where, if they killed him, justice would have been served.

As DeNiro is on his knees in the mud with the burden of his past tied to his back, the chief gives an order. Someone picks up a knife and runs to DeNiro and pulls his head upward with his face pointing to the very people he had hunted down like animals. The knife flashes and glints in the sunlight as the chief gives another order and the knife cuts the rope to the burden on DeNiro’s back. It tumbles down over a waterfall hundreds of feet; the same waterfall he had just climbed.

047_robert_de_niro_theredlistHe is confused. He looks into the faces of his former enemies for understanding. And one by one they begin to laugh. Not the laughter of contempt, the laughter of forgiveness and delight. And suddenly the face etched in pain and agony for all the guilt of his selfish life begins to melt away to first a smile, then a grin, and finally an open-mouth laugh of joy.

He spent the rest of his life loving those for which he had such contempt.

He turned.

And the Kingdom advanced one soul further towards bringing Up There, Down Here.

And so brothers and sisters, “Repent and Ye shall be saved.”

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