Kingdom Bringers

Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.~ Jesus

Plymouth Plantation

Lynette and I were visiting the Plymouth Plantation in Massachusetts a few years ago and had an interesting encounter with one of the actors that was participating in the interpretive museum.  He was in one of the replica thatched-roofed huts and as we passed by we could hear him reading scripture.  We walked into “his” house and listened to him read from the book of Ecclesiastes.

After a few minutes I asked him a question or two like, “What was the weather like and how was the voyage over on the Mayflower?”  The actor speaking in a brogue accent stayed in character the entire conversation.  He was portraying one of the actual pilgrims that had made that arduous trip.  I was curious as to what “Isaac’s” trade in the New World was so I asked the following question:

“Isaac, what is your profession?”

And, with the 1611 version of the King James Bible open on his lap, he looked at me with incredulity and said,

“Why I am a Christian, sir!”

I smiled at the depth of understanding of this actor and asked a second time what his trade was and he said that he was a tailor.

The difference between our job and our profession can be confusing for many of us.

If you name Jesus as your Lord, you have a higher calling than your trade.  All who are born from above have been beseeched to walk worthy of the calling with which we were called.  We have all been called to be foot soldiers in the advancement of the Kingdom of Heaven.  So, whether you work as a teacher, and engineer, brick layer or a preacher we are all called to be Kingdom-bringers to this sorry, dark world.

A job is an avocation and it exists only to provide a means to advance my vocation.  In other words, I have a calling. And that calling, my friends, is to bring “up there down here.”

That is my profession.

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The Wisdom of Weakness

Our society is doing a good job of producing seniors, but not elders. ~ James Houston

I stand six feet four inches tall and weigh north of two hundred and fifty pounds. When I was a young man I took great pride in my physical strength. I worked construction and was athletic, so physical strength was a deep part of my persona and identity. (I once picked the front end of my jeep up while stuck in mud while someone else drove it out of the mud hole.)

I am now nearly sixty years old and my body is getting soft as biscuit dough and I can’t do things, physically, that I used to do with great ease. This has posed a greater challenge to my spiritual life than I might have ever imagined as a young man. I do not like being weak. I do not like not being able to keep up with younger people. I do not like being vulnerable. I do not want my body to fail me.  These days carrying in a sack of groceries gives me pause.

There are lines on my face and they are getting deeper. There are spots on my hands and they are getting darker. My skin is creped. The doctor took six biopsies off my ear, face, and shoulders not too long ago and said I had a goodly amount of wisdom spots on my body.

Wisdom spots. That was very kind of her to say.

Dealing with my failing and aging body is to come to terms with my mortality. I have less life ahead of me than behind me. These “wisdom spots” are omens of the grave. My inability to keep up with the younger climbers are simply signs that point to a final resting place—below ground.

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

I want to be the kind of person that ages with grace and a winsomeness that draws others to Jesus. But I battle a dark curmudgeon disposition. It is like a shadow that follows me everywhere I go.

God and I speak about these shortening days. I am frustrated, but He is kind and welcoming. He whispers to my soul that I am getting closer to transitioning into a different kind of life that will not be impaired by the distractions of this present world.

The old Puritan prayer “Weakness” reminds me:

Lead me safely on to the eternal kingdom,
not asking whether the road be rough or smooth.
I request only to see the face of him I love,
to be content with bread to eat,
with raiment to put on,
if I can be brought to thy house in peace.

I’m learning that being is more important than doing.

I find rest in that.

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Sacred Opportunity

Behold, I have set before thee an open door. ~ Jesus

When I was a young boy my father came to my brother, sister and I and said, “If one of you will come to town with me I promise you won’t regret it.”  I had been to town before so I said no.  My brother mumbled something about being bored sitting in the car while Dad was at some church meeting.

But my little blond-haired, snaggled-tooth sister beamed and said she would go.  My Dad and sister loaded up in the car and drove the three miles to town while my brother and I went back to playing.  We played for about an hour when we looked up the long dirt driveway from the main road that led to our house and saw that sister of ours riding a bike down the road.  She had a grin so big that you could count the bugs on her snaggled-teeth.

Hey where did you get that bike we asked?  “Someone gave it to our family,” she said.  Dad, who had been following her in the car,  pulled up and had a smile on his face. We looked at him like he had pulled a fast one on us. We were a poor family, so for us to be given a used bike was a big deal. And to be the first to ride it was a bigger deal. And to get to ride it all the way home from town—that was a privilege that my sister would gloat about to her older brothers for a long time.

We started to whine about it not being fair and he stopped us and said, “You had the same amount of information she had, but she trusted and acted on that information.  You wanted to play.”

Our problem was that we didn’t know a good opportunity when it was offered. She trusted her father and reaped the benefits.

Our God is the God of the open door.  When people trust God and walk through open doors, the power of God is set in motion and things beyond our ability start to happen.

Genesis 24 is the story of Abraham, who is an old man by now. His wife Sarah is dead, and it’s time for his son Isaac to be married. The whole future of Israel rests on this decision. So, the big question is how is he going to find a wife for his son? There were no computer dating services back then or single’s bars. There were no newspapers in which to write personal ads like, “Attractive nomad with excellent prospect searching for female who likes to travel.”

The custom in those days was for a parent to arrange the marriage for their children.

Now Abraham was old, well advanced in years; and the Lord had blessed Abraham in all things. Abraham said to his servant, the oldest of his house, who had charge of all that he had, “Put your hand under my thigh and I will make you swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and earth, that you will not get a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I live, but will go to my country and to my kindred and get a wife for my son Isaac.”   (Genesis 24:1-4)

Parenthetically, putting a hand under the thigh was another ancient custom. It was a way to seal a deal in those days. Nowadays we just sign a contract or shake hands.   Call me squeamish—but I like our way better.

So, Abraham commissions his servant, and Eliezer assembles a caravan of ten camels with gifts, we’re told. He goes to the city of Nahor. He kneels down by a well and he prays and waits, and soon a young woman named Rebekah approaches.

Eliezer explains the opportunity to her family and they say, “Here’s an open door. It will mean leaving everything, all that’s familiar, all that’s comfortable, and going to a strange place. Will you go with the man?” And her destiny hangs in the balance. There’s this open door from God, and she says, “I will go. I’ll leave my home. I’ll leave everything that’s familiar and go on this enormous adventure.”

Rebekah had no idea what was going to happen. She just walked through that door in trust. What if she hadn’t walked through? What if she got to the door and then stopped? One thing for certain, you would not know her name or her story.

There is no tragedy like the tragedy of an abandoned open door. What is the door of opportunity God is opening up for you right now?

At the end of the ancient book that we love Jesus speaks of another door. This is not a door of opportunity. It is a door to the heart, but it is closed.

Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hears my voice, and opens the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.     Rev. 3:20 KJV

This is one of the most tender images in the Bible.

One time when our twin granddaughters were about four years old they were spending the weekend with us and I walked down the hallway towards my room and could hear them playing house in their room at our house. Little red-headed girl chatter about tea, flowers, and cake.

I stood outside and listened to the conversation between these little angels and my heart melted. I did the only thing a grandfather of grandgingers could do under those circumstances—I politely knocked on the door. Presently, little Addie, who wants to marry me when she grows up, opened the door. When she saw me she exclaimed with a huge smile, “Cadie, we have guests!”

I went in an enjoyed a wonderful pretend meal.

When you love somebody, you wonder; will the door always be open? Will I always be welcome in that heart?  What will I do if one day I knock and they don’t answer?

As my grandfather might have said, “Jesus stands there, outside the locked door of my heart with His hat in his hand—waiting for me to let Him in.”

God has designed you with this door to your heart that can only be opened from the inside. No one can force you to love them.  No One.  Not even God.  Only you can open the door of your heart. God Himself will not violate that door.  But He won’t go away either! Because He loves His children too much.

If you will open the door of your heart, he will come in and you will share the most tender and rich intimacy you could ever imagine.

Doors of opportunity and intimacy are waiting for you. Open the door. I promise you won’t regret it.

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Fighting Fire with Prayer

You are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil will not sojourn with you.
He denigrates women and advocates violence toward those who dare to oppose him.
O Lord, your tolerance of this evil causes my heart to break.
Make him bear his guilt, O God; let him fall by his own counsel.

He denigrates women and advocates violence toward those who dare to oppose him.
There is no truth in his mouth; his heart is destructive, his throat is an open grave.
Make him bear his guilt, O God; let him fall by his own counsel.
I do not understand how people who worship you can tolerate this evil behavior.

There is no truth in his mouth; his heart is destructive, his throat is an open grave.
O Lord, your tolerance of this evil causes my heart to break.
I do not understand how people who worship you can tolerate this evil behavior.
You are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil will not sojourn with you.

 

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The Proof

Unless I see in His hands… St. Thomas

“If life doesn’t break your heart at least once a day, that shows a real lack of imagination.” ~ Garrison Keillor

Back in the summer of 2013 my church in the Pacific Northwest gave me a month sabbatical and I hiked the Oregon section of the Pacific Crest Trail. When you hike the trail for a few hundred miles like I did, you begin to meet the same people at campgrounds and watering holes. Often when you introduce yourself you will hear them say their “trail name.” Names like “The Bee Man” or “Two Shoes” or “Sweet Jesus.”

One evening when a few of us were drinking hot drinks and swapping trail stories, a retired cop from L.A., who could do an incredible impersonation of Arnold Schwarzenegger and had acquired the trail name “Kindergarten Cop”, asked me what I did away from the trail.

When I told him I was a pastor he started calling me “The Rev.”

Not my favorite idea for a trail name, but better than the one “Two Shoes” tried to give me. “Two Shoes” got her trail name by wearing one shoe on her left foot that was a different brand from the shoe on her right foot. When she heard me spout off in my typically snarky way about someone’s behavior and then also discovered that I was a minister, she pronounced me “The Judge.”

So, take your pick: The Rev or The Judge.

Maybe you acquired an unfortunate nick name that stuck with you longer than you would have preferred.  That is probably true of Thomas and he hasn’t shaken that name in two millennia. You don’t have to be a student of scripture to be familiar with that name. Doubting Thomas has worked it’s way into our culture. You can even look it up in the urban dictionary and find an entry for him.

Doubt is normal. And honest doubts are part of faith. I would much rather talk to somebody honestly who was struggling with their faith than listen to somebody who was deceiving themselves. The Victorian cure for doubt was to avoid too much inquiry. Charles Kingsley is said to have cautioned his wife about her doubt by saying, “Think little and read less.”

But this is not to deal with doubt, it is rather to consign our faith to ignorance in the search of illusive bliss.

“He that never doubted scarce ever well believed,” wrote the poet William Austen.

I am not pretending that doubt is a wonderful thing, it is not. It can paralyze us and prevent us from serving God or worshipping him. Yet every servant of God has had doubts, and it might seem that they are indeed a prerequisite for those whose seek to be honest before God.

Think of Moses, I cannot do this God, I cannot speak. Think of Jeremiah, struggling with the doubts which characterize the deeply depressed. Think of John the Baptizer, who asked Jesus, “Are you The One or should we wait for another?” Think of Peter who had a life which seemed characterized by dreadful times of doubt, which led him to deny Jesus three times.

Yet it is in doubt and the process of dealing with doubts that we grow and mature in our faith. Doubts and faith are twins. The opposite of faith is not doubts; the opposite of faith, is unbelief.

All of us have doubts, sooner or later.

I like what the late Dallas Willard said, God appreciates our honest questions. They give Him something solid to work with.

Here is what leads Thomas through his own doubts into faith. He’s doing his due diligence by doubting his doubts. He does not say, “I will not believe. End of story.” Nor does he say, “I will not believe based on the behaviors of those who say they follow Him. I mean, look at Peter. What a loser. And James? where was James? And don’t even get me started about Judas! Not a single one of you guys stood strong when the going got tough.”

He examines the evidence for himself and says, “Unless I see…unless I touch….”

Honestly, many people today see no point for having faith in God. Only the weak need God, they reason. If they don’t have a weakness (addiction) or a deep and existential longing that keeps them restless and up at night, then they don’t they need God. And because they have no deep longing or need, that must mean that there is no God that could possibly hold them accountable for their life and beliefs.

That is a faith claim. That is a belief. That is a leap of faith.

Jesus said to him, “Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” John 20:29

For years when I would read that I thought it was a strange response. Here is Jesus showing up for Thomas giving him what he asks for and then shaming him for asking for it.

Seems like Jesus is saying, “Here look at the wounds. How dare you look at the wounds.”

Is it possible that something else is going on here? It may be that what is happening is that Jesus is breaking the Fourth Wall. Do you know what that term means? It is from the theater. When an actor is involved with the dialogue and action of the script, but then at some point he or she turns and addresses the audience directly.

I think that something like that is happening here. I don’t think Jesus is shaming Thomas at all. He shows up for Thomas and says, ‘You believe because you have seen Me.”

And then Jesus turns to us, the audience, and says, “Blessed are you, you who (are not standing in this room and are not smelling the burial spices lingering on my clothes; you who are not looking at the jagged holes in my hands and side,) who have not seen and yet have believed.”

We are blessed indeed.

And so, dear friend, may you doubt your doubts and follow those doubts to the living Lord so that you may hear a heavenly voice speak into your heart your new trail name, “Beloved of God.”

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Pray Your Tears

About ten years ago I got a phone call that no one ever wants to get. My wife called me to tell me that my nephew and youngest son Caleb’s best friend, Josh Bixler, had put a hand gun to his head and pulled the trigger at the age of fourteen.

I remember standing up and pushing my face into the corner of the room and screaming out to God. If someone had heard my guttural scream, they would have been certain that I had lost my faith. I had held this boy in my arms and dedicated him on Mother’s Day. I had gone to his t-ball games. I had bought him Christmas presents. I had taken him backpacking several times with Caleb.

That evening, when we had to tell Caleb about the death of Josh, was one of the worst days of my life. My wife and two oldest sons and daughter-in-law stood in our living room in a circle, held hands and prayed while fifteen-year-old Caleb was up in his room playing video games. I remember saying, “In five minutes Caleb will hear news that will send shockwaves into his soul for the rest of his life. He’s upstairs as a child, after we tell him about Josh, he will go back up those same stairs—not a child.”

The family asked me to eulogize Josh. I remember flying to Denver and feeling as if I were flying into a war zone. As I drove to Josh’s house, dismembered memories lay like body parts at every street corner along the way.

I wrote as well as I could the eulogy that I wanted to share at the church in front of about 900 people, many of whom were students at Columbine High School. Yes, that Columbine High School that had suffered so much horror seven years earlier.

What struck me was that while Josh’s parents wanted to celebrate his life (and rightfully so), but the music was a little too upbeat and cherry. The mood was a little too festive. People were clapping and smiling. The happier everyone got, the madder I became. My wife, as she does more than I would care to admit, reached over and patted me on my knee and said, “Easy does it, big guy. Easy does it.”

The pastor called on me to come to the podium and share my eulogy. And the first thing I said was,

“This is not right. We, none of us, should be here. You students should be playing soccer or studying for tests. You teachers should be grading papers. Caleb should be watching a Star Wars movie with Josh. His parents should be at work. I should be at home writing a sermon. This is not what God wanted any of us to be doing today…”

Well, that sucked the life out of the room.

We live in a culture that is clueless about how to grieve and cry out to God. We live in a celebratory culture that wants everything to be rainbows, daisies, and puppy breath.
Author Tara Owens put it wisely when she said,

Our inability to feel and articulate the deep sorrow of our life causes us to only experience truncated joy. There is an equilibrium between the depth of sorrow experienced and expressed and the abiding joy that God wants us to know in our lives.

We have lost our ability to cry out to God because we refuse to allow ourselves to feel deeply our hurt, doubts, pain and suffering. In short, we have lost the skill of lamenting.
It might surprise you that prayers of lament show up quite a bit in the Bible. And these are anything but pious, proper, or polite.

For example, in Psalm 13 we read:

How long, O Lord? Will You forget me forever?
How long will You hide Your face from me?

Or we read in Psalm 44…

Awake! Why do You sleep, O Lord?
Arise! Do not cast us off forever.

Or in Psalm 39 the writer wants God to go away…

Remove Your gaze from me, that I may regain strength,
Before I go away and am no more.”

The question that a thinking person might ask is simply this, “What are these prayers doing in the Bible? And how do you and I make sense of them?”

I think that these dark prayers of lament, that turn up more frequently than we might expect in this old prayer book, illumine for us a profound paradox about Christian praying. Praying your doubts, your tears, your anger, and your desperation is not a sign of a LACK of faith; it is an ACT of faith. Christian prayer takes seriously that life for all of us, sooner or later, can be hazardous to our health.

These words give us a vocabulary to yell for help to the living God when we are in the middle of our own troubles, vulnerabilities, anger, and confusion. The psalms of lament give us words to speak to God smack in the middle of our messy lives.

Why does an infant cry? It cries when it is hungry or when it has soiled itself. Those cries can be loud and incessant. The cries in the middle of the night are for help with some kind of discomfort. It is altogether appropriate for that infant to cry out under those conditions.

What we learn from the ancient prayer book is that when we have “soiled” our lives and are sitting in our own filth, we can cry out to the living God and know that he hears us and will come to us. The fact that these laments are recorded in the book that we love, tells us that it is altogether appropriate for us to cry out under all conditions.

What does this mean for us practically: We can give God our tears.

In the Russian novel, Brothers Karamazov, there are a number of scenes in which Ivan, one of the brothers, shakes his fists at the heavens. Ivan is deeply troubled by the suffering of the world and in particularly of children. He protests over and over again if there is a God how could there be such horrific suffering in the world.

If you read the novel it is telling that Dostoevsky, who is a Christian, offers no rhetorical answer to any of Ivan’s question. The counterpoint in the story is supplied by various character’s example of love and faithfulness amid suffering.

I mention this because in the tapestry of Holy Scripture, the very same thing happens. Like it or not, the Bible offers to us less than we want on the one hand, but more than we could ask for on the other in response to all of our protests and questions over life’s hardships and the world’s horrors.

As products of the age of enlightenment we are prone to want answers. We want explanations. We are looking for cause and effect. So, when there is evil, horror, suffering that defies our ability to understand and we start looking to God for answers, we want him to give us solutions and explanations that makes sense to us.

But when you turn to the Bible you don’t find explanations for anything and everything that God could say as to why there is so much suffering in the world. But what the Bible does is tell us a story. A long epic story about what God has done to rescue us and the cosmos. He does it by entering into it and coming near to us to taste our suffering and our hardship.

The scriptures don’t settle for what God could say; they narrate for us what God does.
He does not snap his divine fingers and make it all go away; He dares to come near us in our plight. Jesus willingly gives himself to be “eaten up” in our suffering and death.
The world’s deep suffering closes in on Jesus; so that God can rescue us from the inside; from all of the dark and the wrong that swallows us up. In that way, we can be sure that, though it feels like our feet often slip in life and that we are in up to our necks, we are never in up to our necks—alone.

When your throat is dry from crying out to the heavens, and your eyes are swollen from weeping and looking around for where God might be hiding—here’s where to look…

…The Cross

When you wonder to yourself, “Where is God in my heartache?” Lift up your head and look at the cross. Because the cross of Jesus is where the God of the universe has stepped in to the world, tasted the horror of suffering, dealt with the injustice of unpunished wrongs, and has promised that He will bring us through it all.

There was an Andre Crouch song that was popular when I was a kid that said:

I’ve been to lots of places,
I’ve seen a lot of faces,
there’s been times I felt so all alone.
But in my lonely hours,
yes, those precious lonely hours,
Jesus lets me know that I was His own!
Through it all,
through it all,
I’ve learned to trust in Jesus,
I’ve learned to trust in God

When we cry out to God in lament, God does not respond with quick fixes and pat answers. He responds by giving us himself.

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These Boots are Made for Preaching

“Come, I will show you the bride, the Lamb’s wife.” Revelation 21:9

Ellsworth looked down at my feet after hearing me preach for the first time and said, “A man who isn’t afraid to wear cowboy boots in the pulpit is a man I can trust.” I glanced at my feet and then to his. His boots were black. He was a deacon in my first pastorate. He taught me about being a pastor and it had nothing to do with footwear.

I remember sitting with him and drinking coffee in silence. I counted the tick of the clock on the wall, thirty metrical ticks between sentences. Ellsworth slurped his Folgers and stared out the window. We never talked much, but this is where I learned the most important lesson in being a pastor. He never complimented a sermon, he never challenged my theology, he never asked me for council and he never encouraged me. The closest he ever came was after church one Sunday he said, “Preacher, God rarely gets in a hurry.”

After three and a half years I moved to a different state and changed shoes.

Aside from the obvious list that you might learn in seminary like: holding confidences, faithful to the creeds, be prepared to preach, stay away from the finances, don’t exaggerate too much in sermons, keep your lust at a disguisable level—there is another way to measure trust. It is deeper. It goes unseen but not unknown.

Congregants can smell a restless pastor like polar bears smell seal pups. They may not be able to articulate the feeling they get from the aroma of a pastor on the move, but they know not to put their full weight on him. When he aches for a larger platform, a bigger name, a more dynamic city, a different climate, or even a ‘do-over’ he fails in his most holy sacrament: being present.

Something happens between the soul of a congregation and the soul of a pastor that is not unlike the connection between a husband and wife at the most intimate level. A husband who is easily distracted by a pretty girl from being present with his wife is a husband not worthy of trust, whether that girl is physically present or tucked away under the mattress in his mind.

My wife, Lynette, comes alive when I serve her. And she can tell when I am serving her to get something from her and when I serve her because I adore her. What’s more, when I power up on her she may submit, but a little of her soul dies inside and she is less human. Her soul diminishes.

I imagine a frown crease the brow of my Lord when he sees how I treat my bride, and sadly, how I treat his.

When a pastor rides his church to accomplish his goals under the guise of advancing the Kingdom, something of the bride of Christ shrinks and shrivels even while she is growing as an organization. She is becoming less like Jesus and more like the pastor. But when the pastor has found his place in the belovedness of the divine Groom, the bride responds by walking through her community with the soft sound of sandaled feet.

And that is the best footwear—ever.

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