Fearless Love

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. 1 John 4:17

Fear will keep you from love and love will keep you from fear. It is possible to get conformity of behavior based on fear—at least for a period of time. Every dog owner knows this. Every parent of young children knows this. Law enforcement officers know this, to a degree. But fear is not the primary way God wants to relate to his children.

Sometimes it’s funny what fear makes a full-grown man do.

A few years ago, I had spent an afternoon shopping for my grandson’s birthday gifts which lay in the back of my Jeep. My mind was on auto drive thinking about different people in my church as I was singing loud to a Bruce Hornsby song on the radio.

Then I heard a distant siren from somewhere behind me and a muted Public Address voice with all the authority that comes with someone who carries a badge and a gun, “Halt! Where do you think you are going?”

I looked into all of my mirrors, straining to get a glimpse of the flashing red and blue lights of the police officer that was yelling at me. I looked and he was not ahead of me, not behind me, not beside me yet the siren was still there and the voice from One Adam Twelve was still hollering at me.

I was getting more and more afraid, so I began to pull over and wondered what I might have done to irritate the officer so much that he has to yell at me over the PA system and turn his siren on but without flashing emergency lights.

Did I run a red light? Was I speeding? Did I change lanes inappropriately? Did he think I fit the description of a mass murderer or terrorist? Maybe he thought I was an Oakland Raider fan. What could I have possibly done to incur such wrath when the only thing I had been doing for the last hour was to purchase—not contraband— but toys for my grandson?

That badge and gun have gone to this guy’s head, I said to myself. Then the siren went off again and the voice on the PA system from somewhere behind me says, “To infinity and beyond!”

The tumblers in my brain all began to click in recognition. Buzz Lightyear had fallen over in the backseat and activated his button and he had been cycling through all of his lines from the movie Toy Story.

I remember saying, “That is funny right there, Joe. You crossed two lanes of traffic and were about to put your hands on the hood of your Jeep and get spread-eagle for a—toy.” What motivated me to change that many lanes of traffic? Fear.

Relating to God based primarily on fear is not the way God desires for us to function.

There is an obscure British film from the nineties called Cold Comfort Farm. One of the characters, played by Ian McLellan (Gandalf), is a preacher for a strange sect called “The Church of the Quivering Brethren.” And they’re so called because when the Word is preached to them, their only response is to quiver. There’s a scene in the church and the sermon is all about hell. There’s no gospel to it – just about how badly people will be burned in hell. And they just sit there and quiver.

At one point the preacher shouts out how if you burn your hand in the kitchen what do you do? You put butter on it to soothe the pain, he says. Well, there ain’t no butter in Hell! And they herk and jerk and quiver.

The old Apostle John reminds us, So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.

Some of you are quivering in your souls and you don’t need to.

He goes on to say, We love because he first loved us.

But what if I am not loved back? Jesus might have wondered that very thing. But do you remember what His Father said to him at his baptism? The Heavenly Father said, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you, I am well pleased.”

Jesus needed to hear those words and He needed to remember them over the next three and a half years of ups, downs, outs, attacks, misunderstandings and all the subversive things done to discredit His ministry.

You are the son of the devil, they would say.
No, I’m the beloved of God, He would remember.
You are a drunkard and a sinner, they would say.
No, I’m the beloved of God, He would remember.
You are a bastard child, they would say.
No, I am the beloved of God, He would remember.
You are a lawbreaker, they would say.
No, I am the beloved of God, He would remember.
Get down off the cross, if you are the Son of God, they would scream.
No, I am the beloved of God, He would remember.

And because of that voice of affirmation, Jesus was not afraid of people. And so, He was able to love them.

The same Spirit that descended upon Jesus at His baptism now resides inside of you—that means you have nothing to fear. You can love the unlovable—just like He did when He loved you.

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Exclusion or Embrace?

How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. – Saint John

My brother Jay is one year younger than me. Growing up we loved each other and, of course, hated each other. One time my mother sent me to the chicken coop to gather eggs when I was about 6 years old. It was summertime and I took my shirt off to use to cradle the eggs. As I was gathering the eggs, my brother had secretly captured one of the hens, snuck behind me and through the hen on my bare back. The frightened hen began to climb up my back, flap her wings in such a way that they slapped me in the face and made a noise from the nether world in my ears.

I wheeled around and there was my red-headed brother laughing. I chased him into the barn picked up a short-handled hoe and began to pound the blade into the ground, all the while threatening him with it. Suddenly the well-worn and smooth handle slipped out of my hand and flew across the barn with the blade landing just above his left eye. Sliced open his skin…the arterial spray of blood squirting all over the barn was spectacular …we were in a bad Stephen King novel. Not “Children of the Corn,” but “Children of the Chicken Coop.”

To this day when I see my brother carrying a live chicken, I get a little jumpy.

God intended brotherhood to be a great blessing and a place for a loving embrace. Instead, it can become a battleground. What is true in our family of origin is often true in our families of faith.

Henri Nouwen reminds us,

Community is the place where the person I least want to be there is always there.

One of the striking things about Jesus is that He didn’t work really hard to make sure He put together a small group of people who were naturally compatible with each other. One of them was a man named Simon the Zealot. Zealots were an extremist nationalist political party, committed to the overthrow of the Roman government by any means possible, violence if necessary, and sometimes assassinations. They hated the Romans.

The only people they hated more than the Romans were the people who collaborated with the Romans, like tax collectors who were Jewish people willing to collaborate with the Romans for corrupt financial gain. Zealots were freedom fighters or terrorists, depending upon your political point of view.

When Jesus formed his little congregation of misfits He said, Simon, you’re a Zealot. You despise Romans and collaborators like tax collectors. I’ll take you. And then He said to Matthew, you’re a collaborator and a despised tax collector–+I’ll take you. You can room with Simon. You guys should have some interesting talks with each other.

Can you imagine what it was like?

Jesus was teaching by word and deed:

Embrace the geeks.
Embrace the nerds.
Embrace the wimps.
Embrace those who have dandruff and blemishes and all manner of bad breath.
Embrace those who have no fashion sense.
Embrace the uncoordinated.
Embrace the middle-managers.
Embrace the wrinkled.
Embrace the anxious.
Embrace the unemployed.
Embrace the “river rats.”
Embrace the homeless.
Embrace the “deplorables.”
Embrace the refugees at the border.
Embrace the chronically angry.
Embrace the liberals.
Embrace the sexually addicted and the sexually frustrated.
Embrace the mentally ill.
Embrace the HIV positive.
Embrace the parents who failed.
Embrace the children who ran away.
Embrace the divorced.
Embrace the barren.
Embrace the pregnant out of wedlock.
Embrace the failures.

Embrace, embrace, embrace, embrace…

We are to be a community who embraces and includes each other, not a body that is filled with hatred and exclusion. This is why John emphasizes that we know we love God—when we love each other. This is the in-breaking of God’s new community. John says this is proof that we have moved from death to life.

Maybe we should write a new hymn melody that includes these words from an old T.V. show in the 80’s:

Making your way in the world today
Takes everything you got
Taking a break from all your worries
It sure would help a lot
Wouldn’t you like to get away?

Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name
And they’re always glad you came
You want to be where you can see
The troubles are all the same
You want to be where everybody knows your name

And so, my friends, may we continue on our journey to be more and more welcoming to those that don’t look like us and continue to be a giving community of gathered sinners who are becoming saints.

Jay is one of my best friends, by the way.

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Ellsworth’s Wine

“Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.” 1 John 3:2-3

The witness from the ancient book that we love is that one fine day we who have a covenant relationship with Jesus will be transformed to look exactly like him. That change begins in this life as we live, under his influence and infilling, one moment after another. It happens incrementally, but it happens to the faithful follower of Jesus.

Listen to a description of two men. Both are men that I know, but I have hidden their identity…

The first man, I’ll call Cary, has Hollywood good looks—athletic and charismatic. Men want to be him, and women want to be with him. Wherever he goes to speak and give his Christian testimony, people stand to their feet and cheer. He wears the latest fashion—tattoos, skinny jeans, and short-sleeved Tee shirts with rolled-up sleeves to show off his muscular arms. He has written several best-selling books. He is on everyone’s watch list as an up and coming preacher.

But long ago his love for applause has replaced his love for the Savior he so eloquently talks about to an adoring crowd. The subterranean pressure of performance is getting to him and he drinks a glass of wine every night just to be able to sleep. People don’t know it, but that glass of wine is turning into a problem and he sneaks a glass during the day to just calm his nerves. No one is the wiser.

He doesn’t remember when it happened, but now his faith is something he does to be noticed. And people still flock to see and hear him and get his autograph. Cary is headed for a crash somewhere in his life. Intuitively, he knows this, but it doesn’t stop him from filling his schedule with more adrenalin hits for his darker self. His focus on the externals has won him a following but bankrupted his soul.

Cary doesn’t like the life he is living, but he is so far down the road it feels like he’s gone too far to go back.

And then there is a man I’ll call Ellsworth who lives by himself in the mountains of Colorado. He is stooped in the shoulders and unsteady on his feet. He can’t hear very well and uses a cane as he walks from his old truck into the church house Sunday after Sunday. He carries a 4-inch thick King James Bible that has been marked up so much that it is hard to see where the personal notes and the typed words start and end. The bible is worn and tattered and the edges are stained brown from the oil, dirt, and continued years of immersing himself in the yellowed old love letter.

He rarely speaks in Church, save when he is asked to pray.

“Dear Lord Jesus, kind, loving, heavenly Father,” he begins each prayer. And everyone leans in the direction of his soft voice that sounds like he is talking to an old friend. At some point during his prayer, his voice might break into a spurt of a laugh—“Hah!”—and then lilt down into a gentle sob.

His pastor leans on him for encouragement and often asks him to pray for the specific needs of those in the congregation. No one in the congregation knows that he has prayed for each of them by name and that of their children.

Ellsworth can’t “do” much anymore, but then again he quit trying to “do” for the Lord long ago. Now he just spends his days loving everyone who comes across his path and prays and prays and prays.

Leaving church recently he was heard humming to himself the tune Nearer My God To Thee. One of the verses in that hymn reads as follows:

There in my Father’s home, safe and at rest,
There is my Savior’s love, perfectly blest,
Age after age, nearer my God to Thee.

Then he climbed into his old truck and drove away—alone; dust trailing after him down the dirt drive at his Church.

Brennan Manning tells a story about a priest from Detroit named Edward Farrell who went on his two-week summer vacation to Ireland. His one living uncle was about to celebrate his eightieth birthday. On the great day, the priest and his uncle got up before dawn and dressed in silence. They took a walk along the shores of Lake Killarney and stopped to watch the sunrise. Standing side by side not a word exchanged and staring straight at the rising sun. Suddenly the uncle turned and went skipping down the road. He was radiant, beaming, smiling from ear to ear.

His nephew said, “Uncle Seamus, you really look happy.”

“I am, lad.”

“Want to tell me why?”

His eighty-year-old uncle replied, “Yes, you see, my Abba is very fond of me.”

Live at rest in the Father’s love and you will find a joy from Him that might put a skip in your walk, no matter how faltering your step.

And please pray for Cary.

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How to Beat the Devil

“Let all bitterness…be put away from you.” (Eph. 4:31)

It was late at night and on the way to the hunting camp, I got lost on an old logging road and was running low on gas. I began to think about how I could get some white gas out of my camping stove before I ran out when I downshifted and snapped the stick shifter off inside the console. I couldn’t believe it. I was so furious that I ripped the console off the floorboard and found that I could still shift the one-inch nub.

I was almost there and traveling entirely too fast for the rugged terrain when I hit a rock that jarred the jeep so hard that it bent the rim and popped a bulge the size of a baseball on my right front tire.

The force knocked my battery out of its place over onto the alternator where the spinning pulley acted as a skill saw and cut a gash into the side of the battery spraying battery acid over the entire engine. Steam spewed from the acid on the hot engine block, but I was there. I was a bit harried and edgy, but I was there.

In my hurry to leave Denver, I hadn’t taken time to buy a hunting license. I had planned to go down to Meeker the next day to buy a bow hunting license, but it was opening day and I decided to go to town in the afternoon. The odds of me killing an animal were virtually negligible and the possibility of being caught without a license this far back in the woods was very low. We set out about 4:00 in the morning. We didn’t see deer all morning and mid-morning decided to go back to camp for breakfast.

As we topped a little hill, there was a green game warden truck parked at a gate.  When we got close, he asked to see our hunting licenses.  I froze.  I didn’t have one. The game warden checked my arrows for blood and hair.

He began to write me a ticket for hunting big game without a license (a $750.00 fine and no hunting for years in Colorado) I was embarrassed and ashamed. Especially when he asked me what I did for a living. I told him I was a pastor and that bought me a little grace, I reckon. He reduced the ticket to hunting small game without a license that carried a much less severe penalty.

As I was leaving the camp and coming down the mountain, I turned a corner and hit an oncoming Nissan Pathfinder head-on.  No one was hurt, but I couldn’t drive my jeep.  The entire front end was caved in. I had to walk about a mile back up to the hunting camp. I was embarrassed to ask for a ride down to a payphone to call for a tow truck and the Colorado State Highway Patrol.

The Trooper arrived and began to fill out paper work. He asked me what I did for a living—I sighed. He cited me with a traffic violation and offered to give me a ride into Meeker.

The Trooper’s son was serving in the Army and this was during the first Gulf War. He was worried about his boy. He and I talked about that for several miles and then when he stopped the cruiser to let me out at a café, I asked him if I could pray for his son. His eyes brimmed with tears and nodded his head. I prayed and he said, “Pastor, you may think this was a bad day for you, but it was a great day for me.”

“Grrrrrrrr,” I thought.

It was a Saturday evening and I was scheduled to preach the next morning and so I needed someone to make the 3-hour drive to come to get me. I made the call for my ride, slid into a boothe in the cafe to get a bite to eat, drink coffee, and study my sermon notes for the next morning. I took a deep breath, sipped some bad coffee, asked God for forgiveness for breaking the law—thought about the events of the last few days, the trauma, the disobedience—my poor jeep…

Dejected, I cried out, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

And then do you know what I did? I started laughing. If you had been there you would have thought that I had finally and completely lost my mind. I laughed until tears rolled down my cheeks. It wasn’t bitter laughter, nor was it the laughter of cynicism. It was a free and freeing laughter.

What else could I do? When I finished laughing, I noticed a difference. My situation was still as bad as it had been before. Nothing had changed—except me.

Satan hated my laughter. He had some plans that were thwarted by it. He wanted to make me bitter. But because the laughter reflected my acceptance of suffering, it made him bitter.

Better him than me, I figured.

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The Brutal and Beautiful of Being a Dad

This past month I wrote each of my adult sons a five-page letter. In it, I described my regrets as a man, husband, and father. But I also tried to express to each of them my heart for them.

What I am learning is that the people we love the most need to know our hearts. They need to hear or read words that penetrate the surface and go beneath the waterline. This is risky, I realize. Much can be misunderstood at that level of vulnerability, but life can also be infused into the hearts of those we love.

I try to do that with Lynette frequently, but this past month decided to do that with the men who are my sons.

Joe and Steve

Recently my friend Steve Smith and I sat down to talk about the adventure of being dads. We talk about what we did wrong, what we did right, and then offer a blessing to fathers and the women who love men.

You can listen to it here: Potter’s Inn Soul Care Conversations

And remember—you are the beloved of God.

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It’s Your World, We’re Just Trying To Live In It

Hubris, noun

an extreme and unreasonable feeling of pride and confidence in yourself:

“Hubris brought him down in the end.”

—Cambridge Dictionary

As a young man, I felt that one of my great strengths was my self-confidence. I felt that my ability to accomplish my agenda by the sheer force of my will and personality was a virtue. I remember sizing people up as to how much effort and energy I needed to expend in them was proportionate to their potential in helping my organization grow or become more efficient.

When we view people only in terms of their potential, we commodify them. And the moment that happens people become pawns on our chessboard. That is not much different than pornography—where we reduce image-bearers into objects for our pleasure or gain.

This all stems from the notion that it is my world, and everyone else is a satellite in my solar system and they exist to orbit around me. This myopic attitude cannot be remedied easily.

The ancient Greeks considered hubris a dangerous character flaw capable of provoking the wrath of the gods. In classical Greek tragedy, hubris was often a fatal shortcoming that brought about the fall of the tragic hero. Typically, overconfidence led the hero to attempt to overstep the boundaries of human limitations and assume a godlike status, and the gods inevitably humbled the offender with a sharp reminder of his or her mortality.

Let’s imagine some of the benefits of humility:

Humility Stands Against Ambition

It’s one thing to work hard in seasons, but to habitually work hard is a response to inner emptiness.

Read these biting words by Eugene Peterson:

I am busy because I am vain. I want to appear important. Significant. What better way than to be busy? The incredible hours, the crowded schedule, and the heavy demands on my time are proof to myself and to all who will notice that I am important.

Driven people frighten me. I know that pathology personally and it is destructive. It does violence to the soul and to the people in my life. To love God is to arrange my life around the gravitational grace of the sovereign God of the universe. It is there that I will find rest—and so will everyone else.

Humility stands against Condescension

Condescension is a certain disdain for people. It is a feeling of superiority. It is to look down on people who have not achieved what I have achieved, or who have inferior life-management skills to mine, or who simply haven’t attained the maturity that I have. It is to feel as if I have the right doctrine and everyone else is stumbling in the dark and headed for eternal ruin and probably taking lots of people with them.

I used to be so sure of my doctrine when I was a young man that I felt compelled to police everyone’s beliefs. Getting people to conform to my view of correct doctrine was arrogant and it was not very compelling. Love says that who you are is more important than what you believe. There are heresy hunters afoot these days and I am their frequent prey. When we correct beliefs before we listen to the hearts of our brothers and sisters we do great violence to the body of Christ.

I love the way the late Rachel Held Evans put this, people bond more deeply over shared brokenness than they do over shared beliefs.

Humility Stands against Willfulness.

The need to always be right. These are the people who will say I’m often wrong but never in doubt. They have a hard time ever taking advice.

A thirty-six-year-old man from another state came to see me last year and as we were driving from my study to get lunch, he marveled at the beauty of the mountains in our valley.

Then he said, “What ski resort is at the base of that mountain over there?”

I said there was no ski resort there.

He said, “But look at those ski runs coming down that mountain.”

“Those are avalanche shoots,” I said.

“Oh,” he said.

Five minutes later he asked a second time, “Are you sure those aren’t ski runs?”

Humility Stands against Self-Consciousness

Self-consciousness is thinking of yourself all the time. It’s being preoccupied with yourself. How am I going to get this done? What are people going to think of me? How are they going to treat me? How do I manage perception here, there, and everywhere?

True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less. — C. S. Lewis

When I fill myself up with the love of God, I am typically not hungry for the love of self and the approval of others. But if I don’t, then I am ravenous in my soul and people look good enough to consume because my empty ego is like a roaring lion seeking whom it may devour.

That’s why starting my day with God-time and times of reflections during the middle and the end of my day is so helpful in assuaging my unhealthy appetites.

The only answer to hubris is humility. And the only way to get humility is worshiping the living God down deep inside the soul.

Let an old first-century hymn captured by Paul in his letter to first-century Christians help you see the path to humility,

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

The way up is the way down.

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A Feather of Faith

In Manassas, Colorado our denomination owns a piece of property in which we are trying to plant a church. But the way the underground aquifers are in that part of the San Luis Valley, the water table is relatively close to the surface so the building is elevated on concrete stem-walls because during wet years the underground water will seek to join the surface water. But for most of the year, the water is below the surface of the ground and the building appears to be sitting on stilts waiting for a flood.

However, during the driest of years there is still a hint of green all around the building because even though water may be scarce above ground, there is plenty of water just below the surface. So, when the year is wet, like this year, the vegetation is even lusher around that church building.

African American pastor Howard Thurman wrote a poem about the inner you. He says, There is in every person an inward sea.

I like the way Dallas Willard defines joy:

Joy is not the mere sensation of pleasure — it is a pervasive, constant, and unending sense of well-being that flows from vision, peace, righteousness, and hope. True joy is robust. We can experience the joy of being in God’s kingdom even in the midst of suffering and loss.

Like the subterranean source of water at that church in Manassas, there is growth even during times of drought.

The prophet Jeremiah helps us,

Blessed are those who trust in the Lord,
whose trust is the Lord.
They shall be like a tree planted by water,
sending out its roots by the stream.
It shall not fear when heat comes,
and its leaves shall stay green;
in the year of drought it is not anxious,
and it does not cease to bear fruit. Jeremiah 17:7-8

If you want to know the joy of the Lord you have to go after knowledge of God in the Bible. You have to pursue it. It won’t’ just drop into your heart from above.

But there is an additional way to learn more about God…

I have been practicing this method for years and if you practice it consistently it might change your life. If you will commit to this practice for thirty days, you will be shocked at how much joy you will discover bubbling up through the fissures of your life. My friend Steve Smith talked about this on a recent Potter’s Inn Soul Care Conversation. I’ve adapted portions here:

Praying Backwards

At a set point in your day, review the last twenty-four hours of your life. Try to really notice things. And in a journal or in conversation with your spouse or friend discuss the following:

Express Gratitude. Gratitude helps us find God in all things, places, and people. Try to express your thankfulness for what you have experienced in the last twenty-four hours.

Notice and discuss the Brutal of your day. This is the felt absence of God. This is when you do not see God working in your heart. These are the events which caused anxiety, self-preoccupation, distress, fear, upset feelings.

Notice and discuss the Beauty in your day. This is the felt presence of God. These are the places where you experienced joy, happiness, peace, satisfaction, blessing, well-being in your day.

Blaise Pascal worried that the biggest threat to the spiritual life for folks in his day was their relentless ability to distract themselves from thinking about God.

Your joy comes from what you know to be true about God and what you take time to see—really see.

Read this poem slowly, out loud.

Feather at Midday

By Sister Dang Nghiem

If I had not stopped to watch a feather flying by,

I would not have seen its landing–
a tiny pure white feather.

Gently, I blew a soft breath
to send it back to the spring.

If I had not looked up to watch
the feather gliding over the roof,
I would not have seen
the crescent moon
hanging at midday.

Now, read it aloud again, this time even slower.

You can experience the presence of Jesus if you will take steps to see and not just hope you feel something from time to time. Knowing God requires investigation not only of His Word—but of your life. It requires intentional noticing. Joy comes to the surface through the upsurge of love from the hidden aquifers of Living Water inside me.

That happens when you pray backwards.

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