What’s Your Name?

And he said to her, “Daughter… “      Mark 5:34

Forrest Gump is the life story of a mentally challenged man (Tom Hanks), who accomplishes the incredible with his simple reasoning and persistence.

In one scene, Forrest and his childhood friend Jenny are walking down an old gravel road shaded by hardwood trees. Jenny carries her sandals, and the walk seems pleasant until they happen upon an abandoned, weather-worn house. The sight is horrifying to Jenny. It is her childhood home, a place where Jenny had been abused by her alcoholic father.

Forrest sees the pain etched on Jenny’s face as she walks ahead of him toward the old, abandoned house. Suddenly, Jenny throws her shoes at the house and then begins picking up rocks and furiously throwing them against the house. Years of pent-up anger are unleashed. When nothing is left to throw at the house, Jenny falls to the ground crying. Forrest sits down in the muddy driveway beside her, and says, “Sometimes, I guess, there just aren’t enough rocks.”

I am not telling you something new when I say that there are probably some folks reading this who would like to throw a few rocks. Maybe not at the house that they grew up in and felt pain, maybe they would like to throw a few rocks at cancer they just found out about. Maybe a rock at dissolving relationships that no one knows about. Maybe a rock at depression. Maybe a rock at the pain that can’t even be named. 

In Jesus’ day, there was no condition more debilitating and humiliating than this hemorrhage from which she suffered. It was some sort of chronic menstrual disorder. It affected her in many ways. It affected her marriage. She couldn’t sleep with her own husband. She couldn’t bear children. Also, ceremonially everything she touched was unclean. She couldn’t prepare meals, wash a dish, and she couldn’t wash clothes.

She must have experienced chronic fatigue. Always weak and tired. She couldn’t go into the Temple and worship. For 12 years this went on. As if that weren’t enough. Mark tells us that she went to many doctors. Some of you can relate to that. Going from doctor to doctor and finding no relief. Finances dwindling. I’m sure she was broke. And instead of getting better, she was getting worse. In the end, all she had was hope and a prayer.

But in the story that Mark tells, Jesus calls her “daughter.”

I wonder how long it had been since any term of endearment had been spoken to her. How long had it been since she had someone speak low to her?  We know she had not shared her bed with her husband for 12 years. Here the God of the Universe calls her “daughter”.

What name would you long to be called? If you could pick your own term of endearment, what would it be?

Some time ago, a pastor from another state sent me an email containing what he said he would say about me at my funeral. When I got the email and saw what it was about, this could be good or it could hurt very badly.

I know it is weird, but I’d like to share with you what he sent me.

I had never given much thought to caring for my soul…. Until my soul was already in trouble.  That is when, in the Lord’s merciful providence, I met Joe.  We met at the Annual Meeting of the Northwest Baptist Convention several years back. Going into that convention meeting, I was hurting. Our family was grieving the tragic loss of my son’s best friend…. My wife had been diagnosed with a life-threatening health condition (in fact, as Joe and I were meeting, she was in the hotel room, so sick from her latest round of chemo that she could barely move). Going into that meeting, I had no idea what Soul Care was…. I just knew I was hurting, and I didn’t know what to do about it.

In our first meeting, I knew that, at that moment…. I mattered to Joe. My pain and my problems were met with a listening ear and genuine concern.  We talked some.  At times, I tried to talk, and the words wouldn’t come out. I cried some. He listened. He shared a poem with me (typical Joe, right?) But the thing that really stuck with me….

As we were finishing up, Joe wanted to pray for me…. But it wasn’t the prayer that stuck with me…. As he began to pray, he paused for just a moment….. a brief silence with a deep exhale…. And in the pause before the prayer…. I felt rest.  I felt comfort. I felt renewed hope.  I don’t remember the prayer…. But I remember the pause.  In the pause, my soul rested and was refilled.

As I think about Joe’s life…. His legacy…. I think about the beauty of the pause. There is serenity in stopping for just a moment to breathe…. To consider the weight of a moment or a feeling. Psalm 46:10 tells us to “Be still and know that I am God”. For me…. That is the power of the pause. In the stillness, my soul is filled once more.  In the stillness of the pause, my grief and sorrow find comfort. In the stillness of the pause, my joy in the Lord is restored. 

He was the pastor of the pause.

I’ve been a preacher since 1978 and I’ve taken great pride in having the right words for the right moment. I’ve written a book and this blog—words matter to me. Words are the medium that I use to paint pictures and convey faith, hope, and love—or so I thought.

But to be called “The Pastor of the Pause” really touched my soul. In other words, God spoke to this brother through what I didn’t say.

One of the best things ever said to me: The Pastor of the Pause.

What name would you love to hear from your living Lord?

“He said to her, ‘Daughter. . . ‘ “ 

The healing in this woman’s body paled in comparison to the wholeness that came to her soul as Jesus in a soft, low, and tender voice called her daughter. If you are very quiet—paused—you might just hear Him call your name.

Then maybe you can drop your rocks.

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Being An Inadequate Minister

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted  Matthew 28:16

 “The number ‘eleven’ limps; it is not perfect like twelve. […] The church that Jesus sends into the world is ‘elevenish,’ imperfect, fallible.” – Dale Bruner

In the Bible when God calls somebody to do something, as far as I know, nobody ever responds by saying, “I’m ready! Good timing! You came to me at just the right moment when my tank is all filled up, and I’m adequately prepared.” The truth about you is you’ll always have a reason to say, “Not ready,” because for us, ready is to be so completely self-sufficient that success is guaranteed.

But in God’s kingdom, the issue of feeling ready is not the primary indicator of being ready.

I became a pastor at the age of 26. The little country church that asked me to be their pastor was very longsuffering and kind.

As a young man, I had concentrated all my energies on being a good preacher. I wrote sermon after sermon; even when I did not have a church. When I went to that little Baptist church in Oklahoma, I had six months’ worth of sermons. Back in those days, we preached Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night. But I had all those sermons. I was ready. Or so I thought.

I desperately wanted to be a good pastor and yet I knew I was not ready to care for anyone’s soul. Not really. I was out of my depth. But I always had my dad, who was a pastor.

I had asked him how to do business meetings. (Robert’s Rules of Order)

I asked him where to stand after you preach a funeral. (At the open end of the casket)

What do I say at the baptism? I remember he said, “Put your right hand in the middle of their back, raise your left hand and say, ‘Upon your profession of faith and in obedience to the commands of our Lord and Savior, I baptize you my brother or sister in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit.’ Then bend your knees, lower them down, and help them out.”

There’s no possible way I would remember that, so I wrote it down on a yellow post-it pad and stuck it to the glass in the baptistry. That way I could cheat if I needed to. The steam from the warm water caused the adhesion to release and the post-it was floating in the water.

I kept glancing at the bobbing post-it pad but couldn’t get a read on the words.

“Upon this rock…”no that’s not right.

“I feel it is important to be obedient….no, well, yes, it is important, but…”

“I’m going to baptize you now with our knees bent in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spicket.”

It was horrible and harmless at the same time.

But there was one thing that scared the living daylights out of me: what do I do if someone comes to me for pastoral counseling? I can read commentaries, listen to other sermons, and preach louder if I am unsure about my preaching. But what do I do when someone comes to my study with a spiritual problem? What do I say without the props of my sermon notes? I hadn’t finished college and had never gone to seminary.

Other than Baptist business meetings, nothing scared me more than pastoral counseling. I knew I could pretend to sound like I knew what I was talking about in a sermon, but they would find out early on what I did not know when they came to ask for counsel in my study. I felt so inadequate for that responsibility. I dreaded that day.

I was elevenish. I doubted.

I was a towering bowl of Jell-O.

One day someone called me to see if I would counsel them. I waited until after ten o’clock to make a long-distance call to my dad. (It was cheaper after ten o’clock, remember?)

“Dad, I have my first pastoral counseling appointment tomorrow. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to say. What if they ask me a question I can’t answer?”

Long pause on the phone.

Then my dad said, “Lean forward, pay attention, and rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. You will never get in trouble for what you don’t say.”

The next day Chuck Smith came to see me and that’s what I did; palms sweating, knees knocking, I leaned forward and listened. The whole time he spoke, I just listened and prayed silently:

“Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.”

After about 45 minutes, Chuck had run out of things to say and stopped. I took a deep breath and asked him if I could pray for him. He said, “Yes.” I didn’t even know what to pray, so I let about two minutes of silence pass between us and then prayed.

When I said, “Amen” I looked up and he had the most serene look on his face.

He said, “Thank you, pastor. You really helped me.”

God had spoken in my silence (weakness) in ways he had never spoken in my sermons (strength).

And so, my friend, may you put your “yes” on the table and move into the task put before you no matter how incomplete and inadequate you might feel, and remember the issue of feeling ready is not the primary indicator of being ready.

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Palm Monday

So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting,

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—
the King of Israel!”

Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written:

“Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion.
Look, your king is coming,
sitting on a donkey’s colt!” John 12:13-15

The word “blessedness” and “shalom” are the same basic words. Shalom means complete thriving and flourishing. That is what the people were aching for on the first Palm Sunday. They were longing for everything to be made right. When they waved the palm branches, they were looking forward to the day in which the palm trees wave their own branches.

When I go for my walks in the woods beside my house at the base of Mt. Princeton and the breeze moves the pine boughs in sighs of wonder and contentment, I am reminded of that verse in Isaiah that says, And all the trees of the field shall chap their hands.

And that is a constant promise to me of the coming King of Kings.

When the true king comes back and puts everything right, everything in nature will work again. There will be complete harmony and complete peace. It’s the end of death, disintegration, and decay; it’s the end of sickness—the end of the war in Ukraine. It’s the end of everything that’s wrong with the material world. Someday the trees themselves will literally dance and sing.

What’s the significance of the donkey colt?

One of the things that everybody who knows anything about beasts of burden is that you can’t just jump on one of them and expect to ride it. They have to be broken. The colt was too young to be broke. That means it submitted to the Lordship of Jesus.

Jesus didn’t have to break the animal. He’s Lord of nature; he’s the Lord of all and under his hand, nothing but harmony and peace comes about. The donkey knows and loves its true master for who he is.

This is a foreshadowing then of the complete healing of all nature under the future kingship of Christ.

Can I remind you that Jesus is your King? He’s the one you seek. He’s invincible. He’s a lion heart, and he will give you a lion heart. You don’t have to try to be strong on your own. In fact, you don’t have to be strong at all. That’s not your job. Our job is to walk so close to Jesus that his courage becomes our courage. We don’t have to do anything except love this good earth and cooperate with him to make His prayer come true…

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

The renowned author, journalist, and Christian apologist GK Chesterton was the inspired mind behind a short poem that puts a new spin on Palm Sunday. Titled simply The Donkey, it narrates, in the voice of the colt.

When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born;

With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devil’s walking parody
On all four-footed things.

The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.

Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.

I imagine this little donkey got up on the Monday following the Triumphant Entry on Palm Sunday and said, “Boy, this is going to be a great day.” He walked into the marketplace and said to everybody, “Here I am,” and nobody looked at him.

So, then he walked on down a little bit further and came right into the local religious gathering place, and he said, “Here I am.”

Everybody said, “What are you doing here? Get that donkey out of here!”

And they threw things at him and they pushed him away. He came on back to his mother and he said, “I don’t get it. I just don’t get it. Just yesterday everybody …”

And she said, “Silly child, without him you can do nothing.”

You see, it depends on who’s riding you. It depends on who your king is. It depends on what’s driving your life. It depends on what you’re living for. Great kingliness will come into your life if you make him the King.

On the first Palm Sunday, he came meek and lowly, riding on the foal of a donkey. The next time he comes back he’ll be riding on a cloud. The first time he came to be torn; the next time he will come to tear apart all evil.

And that gives me hope on this Palm Monday 2022.

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The Deepest Truth

“What comes into our mind when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”  A.W. Tozer

I grew up in a faith tradition that emphasized original sin. Original sin is the Christian doctrine that holds that humans, through the fact of birth, inherit a tainted nature in need of regeneration and a proclivity to sinful conduct. One of the most famous sermons in the history of our faith in America came from Jonathan Edwards called, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” It’s not a happy sermon.

One of the most popular hymns for centuries was written by Isaac Watts entitled, Alas! and Did My Savior Bleed. The very first verse describes how Isaac saw humanity.

Alas! and did my Savior bleed
And did my Sov’reign die?
Would He devote that sacred head
For such a worm as I?

I am a worm because I do wormy things. For many years—many—I thought of myself as a recovering sinner. I have committed sins both large and small and that made me a sinner. My first thought when I considered the truth of who I am was a variation of the recovery saying found in Alcoholics Anonymous that said, “I am a recovering alcoholic.” I would think of myself as a “recovering sinner.” The recovery group encourages that self-identifier to remind the addict that they are one drink away from a relapse that can destroy their lives.

Is the most important truth about me the fact that I am a worm? Is being a sinner the first and most important truth about me? I have grown to believe that it is not.

I love what poet and writer the late Macrina Wiederkeher prayed in her book Season of Your Heart,

O God

help me to believe

the truth about myself–

no matter how beautiful it is!  

The truth is that I am a beloved son of the Most High God. When I entered a covenant relationship with Jesus at the age of seven years old, I was placed in Christ. The Apostle Paul uses that phrase some one hundred and fifty times to describe my position before God now that I have this faith-based covenant relationship with Jesus. I am in Christ. That is good news for a wormy guy like me.

Sometimes I hear celebrities asked if they have any regrets in their lives. Most, if not all, say, “I have no regrets in my life. If given an opportunity to live life again, I’d live it the exact same way.” What a stupid and banal thing to say. As a wormy guy, I have to tell you I have many regrets. Many.

But here is what I have come to believe to the core of my being. I now believe that my years of living in repentance have eclipsed my regrets. I’ve come to accept the reality of my life with joy because there is something truer about me than my worminess—I am the beloved of God.

My brother is the poet—not me—but I wrote this little piece a few days ago and it speaks to what I am trying to say…

Don’t you hope that is the truth about you, too? I posted the little poem on social media the other day and a man I have never met replied as follows:

I can’t describe to you how this blesses me. I am struggling so hard in this season. I’m almost 65 and I’ve never felt more unlike a son of God. I’m going to meditate on this some more and hopefully it sinks in deep!

Maybe that is you as well.

The Psalmist did not lie when he said,

I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvellous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well. (Psalm 139:14)

Perhaps the Lord is saying this to you as much as to me today,

The beloved of the Lord shall dwell in safety by him; and the Lord shall cover him all the day long, and he shall dwell between his shoulders. (Deut. 33:12)

We are not worms, you and me. We are the beloved of God.

I’ll tell you what comes into my mind when I think about God. He says, “Joe before you were a sinner, you were a son.”

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Chapter Five of an Unnamed Novel

They pushed the herd in the rising angles of the morning light, talked about their horses and about their favorite television shows. They yipped and called at the straggling steers and from time to time an older cowboy would ride back to see how they were doing.

As the morning brightened and warmed into the afternoon the sun slid down the sky and turned to block their vision, they saw they had pushed the herd through a gate in a fence. The herd fanned out into the pasture. On the near side of the gate, the flanking cowboys waved and called to the herd. On the far side, the old man sat his horse. He sat there as stone with only gray-blue smoke leaking from lips that were pinched tightly around his pipe.

“How many you lose?” the old man barked.

“What?” the boy yelled, but he knew what was asked.

“I said, ‘How many did you leave behind?’”

“I don’t think we left any” the boy said glancing at the kid.

“Doubt that. Looks to me you boys been talkin’ like a couple of school girls. Been watching you for the last three miles. You sure as hell had better not left one. I guess you better ride back down that road and see. I’ll come down and get you in the morning. I don’t want you pulling that trailer up this road in the dark.”

The old man reined his horse towards the cabin and said over his shoulder to the other cowboys, “Come on, men.  Let’s put the horses up and get us some supper.”

The men moved in rank behind the old man and followed him to the cabin the way the steers had followed him up the road. The two boys watched them leave.

“Did he really mean we have to ride back down the road?” the kid asked.


“What are we supposed to do for supper?”

“Don’t’ know. Maybe we can find something in one of the trucks down the road.”

“That’s fifteen miles away!” the kid said. “I already got sores on my ass. That old man’s a bastard.”

“I know.”

They turned their horses around and went back down the road in silence. The boy could see the shadow of the kid’s hat, shaking back and forth as if still puzzling at the injustice of the old man.

“What if we find a couple of steers?”

“That’ll be bad. He’ll blow a head gasket.”

“Wull, let’s don’t find any.”

“But they’re your cattle.”

“Oh, yeah, I forgot. Is he always so mean?”

They made their way down the road listening for the bawling of a stray steer.  They talked little. Whether from fatigue or from lack of common experiences or the weight of the day and the rejection of community that would have been enjoyed with the others in the warmth of the cabin, they didn’t know.

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Drama in the King’s Chamber

“Fatigue makes cowards of us all.” ~~Vince Lombardi

The entrance to the Marble Caves stands at 12,000 feet above sea level. Local legend has it that Spanish Conquistadors used the passages to secrete gold from one valley to the next.  Having been in the caves I highly doubt that. It is more than a little difficult just to get yourself through the tight passages much less with a payload.

The caves were discovered in the 1880s and the man who found them described them in 1888 as follows:

entrance to the cave is by a crevice in the rock, extending some 400 feet; upon entering one must crawl a distance of 25 feet; then, the investigator can walk in a stooping posture for 25 feet; next, a narrow passage is encountered through which only a person of small stature can pass; and finally a low passage is reached through which one gains entry to the King’s Chamber.

Please note the phrase that says only a person of small stature can pass. That has never described me. I stand six foot four and well over two hundred and fifty pounds. I knew it would be a challenge to take my sons into these caves at my age. I have been in the caves half a dozen times, but the last time was about twenty years before. I was not the same man physically. I was fifty-four and less active than I once was.

The approach was difficult due to living at sea level all year, sitting at a desk most of the time. The temperatures even at altitude were in the eighty’s and I was struggling to stay hydrated. My two sons made it with ease.

At the mouth of the cave, we pulled on our wool gloves, hats, headlamps, and nylon wind pants to enter.  I went first. Why?  Because I knew the way and being the largest by far…but mostly because I am the Dad. I am strong that way. I am dominant that way.

We army-crawled through marmot scat and bat guano for several yards with grunts and huffs. My breathing was heavy. I could hear the guys behind me making guttural noises as they squeezed through tight places like human toothpaste.  At one point Caleb said to me breathlessly, “Dad, I am pretty impressed that you are making it through these tight places that are squeezing the life out of me.”  That made me feel good; then Clint muttered something about the malleability of fat.

At several points in the crawl and contortions, muscles began to cramp at the most inopportune time.  I rued the lack of water I had deprived myself of on our approach. Muscle cramps are not a good problem to have in caves.

We pushed and pulled and stretched and stooped and inched our way onward towards the White Marble Hall or as the 1888 article called it The King’s Chamber. I began to notice my arms getting weaker and back muscles cramping. At one point as we stopped so that I could catch my breath, we decided that we had done the equivalent of over a hundred pushups. My arms were quivering. I had not done any upper body work in years.  I am as soft as biscuit dough.

We crawled on in the cold when about three hundred feet in I sat to rest, I felt my heart racing faster than normal. I looked ahead and saw tighter and tighter passages. I felt my legs and back cramping and my arms quivering. I couldn’t catch my breath. I can only describe it as panic. In a nano-second, I flashed on all my possible rescue scenarios and quickly concluded that no one could rescue me if I couldn’t get out. No matter the injury, illness, or hyperthermia the only person who could get me out was me. Could I wait for the guys to finish and crawl out with them?  The heaving in my chest said no.  Fear was creeping up on me. It started in my toes and rose up through my body and settled like a bully on my chest.

I said aloud, “I need to pray.”

The guys got quiet.

Instinctively I began to pray “The Lord is my shepherd…”

I breathed deep and slow and prayed some more.  The bully was pounding on my chest.

It is hard to look weak in front of your sons.  I was grateful for the darkness so they couldn’t see my flushed and embarrassed face.  Finally fear eclipsed shame and I said, “I have to get out.  You guys can come with me or go on to the White Halls.”  They both agreed to go on.  I started snaking my way out.

“I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.”

In five short minutes of crawling, I stopped to listen for their grunts and moans. Silence. They were gone.  I was alone.  The bully started on me again and I crawled on. Then I began to imagine all that could go wrong for them. That I would be out and safe and they would die in the cave. They had never done anything like this before.

The bully was kicking my big butt all the way out of the cave.  Finally, I said to myself (or God said to me…I couldn’t tell which was due to the bully,) but these words came to my mind, “Trust your sons. They are men.”

Surprisingly I got out a lot faster than it took to get in.  Adrenalin is my favorite drug.  The light blinded me and I blinked my eyes several times to adjust to the brightness.  I was chilled so I sat in the warm sun and I fell asleep waiting for my sons to come out.

An hour later they came crawling and squinting out of the mouth of the cave.  They have some cool stories to tell about their adventures in the White Halls.

Clinton described shimmying up slick, narrow walls like you would climb up the inside of a chimney.  At one point he got scared and he kept saying over and over to himself, “I can do this.  I can do this.”

When he told me that story I said, “We both got a little scared in the caves, didn’t we?”  He said, “Yeah.”

Then I said, “And we both prayed when we were scared.”

He just stared at me.

As I have reflected on the experience in the cave with the bully of fear and my plea for Jesus to help me and began to think maybe I didn’t have enough faith to overcome the bully, I started to crash and question the sincerity of my faith. And then on the trail a couple of days later I was pouting over the cave incident and it was as if Jesus said to me, “Hey Joe, did it ever occur to you that I did speak to you in the cave?”

How so, Lord?

Who do you think said to you, “Get out!”?

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Come Find Me

Indeed, the darkness shall not hide from You,

But the night shines as the day;

The darkness and the light are both alike to You. Psalm 139:12

There are some caves in Colorado called Marble Caves that I have explored several times. If you turn off your headlamps it is blacker than the darkest midnight. You can’t see your hand in front of your face. You can’t tell directions. You can’t see forward, so you don’t know where you are going. You have no direction. You can’t even see yourself; you don’t know what you look like. You may as well have no identity. And you can’t tell whether there is anyone around you, friend or foe.

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

There was a time in my life when I was so bereft of hope that I lived in constant despair. It was during that midnight at high noon that I found a couple of rays of hope that I want to tell you about.

In my late thirties and early forties, I ran marathons. That meant that I spent a lot of time on long runs— double-digit runs. This was before smartphones, iPods, and other audio devices so I ran with a Sony Walkman. It played cassette tapes. (remember those?)

When my heart was burdened with sorrow, which was a lot in those days, I would put a ninety-minute mixed tape in my Walkman, clip it to my waist and run for miles. You would think that I would have on that tape songs like, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” or other positive and upbeat pop songs. Something that would pull my spirits up to a more joyful place. But that is not what I put on my mixed tape. I filled the tape up with sad songs. Songs of lament. Songs of woe. Songs written in a minor key.

There was one song that was on the tape twice—once on each side. It was a song by a Christian band that was popular in the nineties named Delirious. The song was called “Find Me In the River.” Here is the portion that wrecked me:

Find me in the river
Find me there
Find me on my knees with my soul laid bare
Even though You’re gone and I’m cracked and dry
Find me in the river, I’m waiting here for you

Come find me

When that song came through my earbuds, every footfall was like a hammer driving a nail deeper in my heart. I was lost. I couldn’t see. I felt abandoned. And yet that song, and the others on that tape, made me feel seen and heard. It felt like the person who wrote that song, knew how I felt. There was someone in the darkness with me.

Another time music played a part in the lifting of the dark shadow was when Lynette and I were in counseling and our therapist took me by surprise one day by saying, “Joe, when I was a church yesterday, I was praying for you and in our worship, while we were singing a George Herbert hymn, there was a couple of lines in that old song that I believe was meant for you.”

I gulped.

My therapist was highly intellectual, so this was a rare sighting from the Holy Spirit. I couldn’t believe he was thinking and praying for me in church. Dare I believe God spoke to him about me?

I swallowed and asked, “What did you hear?”

He read from notes he had taken on his church bulletin:

Teach me, my God and King,
in all things Thee to see,
and what I do in anything,
to do it as for Thee.

I must have had a blank look on my face because the words didn’t seem to say anything about my condition and my heartache. Then he said something that gave a shaft of hope, ever so thin, that kept me moving forward in my walk with Jesus.

He said, “God is not finished with you in ministry, Joe. He has much for you to do. I am not certain what that ministry will look like, but God isn’t finished using you.”

You could have knocked me over with a feather. I looked at Lynette and she didn’t know what to make of what he was saying either. We talked about them on the drive home. And the more talked the more we began to dream of a day that God would use our sorrow for his glory. That maybe, just maybe, God would allow us to be guides for others who have found themselves in the dark night of the soul.

That is the power of song. Even those written in the minor key, can keep you moving towards the light. And while I felt alone in my sorrow and darkness, and it was years before we had any meaningful impact on the lives of others, God was whispering to me at every turn, “I see you, son. I see you.”

When I got home, I went for a long run and wept some more.

Weeping may endure for a night,
But joy comes in the morning.
Psalm 30:5

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What Are You Worried About?

Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life. – Jesus

I saw a bumper sticker one time that said, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”

When I saw that I wondered, “Would that actually make me worry less?” I don’t think it would. The Christian story makes the best sense of our deepest concerns. We refused to accept that our lives are a meaningless blip on and meaningless blue planet in the universe that is destined to blow up or go cold at the end of time. The Christian story makes deep sense for the anxieties that we carry, and Jesus said, “They point you to your need for the living God. He is a kind and compassionate father and He knows how to take care of His kids.”

When I was five years old my 4-year-old brother and I would rise early to plan our day of adventures.  We had a vast field in the heart of Texas where we lived while my Dad finished his schooling.

A typical morning, I followed my brother into the bathroom and assumed my normal position of sitting on the edge of the tall claw-footed cast iron bathtub and hung my right leg down to the cold linoleum floor.

That leg dangled in front of a little open-flame gas heater.

My brother was busy doing his business.  Cute actually— red-headed, both hands on each side of the toilet holding himself up so that he didn’t disappear into the bowl.  We talked, laughed, and planned.  My mother was still asleep in bed in the room next to the bathroom.

I don’t remember pain—but something caused me to get up off the bathtub and then I smelled smoke; then stabbing pain on the back of my leg. I went to the doorway to my mom’s room, looked back at my right leg, and saw blue and yellow flames curling up my very flammable flannel pajamas.  I also saw my brother, still clinging to the edges of the toilet, eyes as wide as a baseball glove, a look of horror I had never seen on any human face in my five years. Only his little feet and redhead were sticking out of the white porcelain bowl now—screaming.

Then the pain came, and angry flames chased me around in circles in my Mom’s room.  She jumped out of bed, grabbed a housecoat, and wrapped my leg to suffocate the fire.  Then she went to see what was killing my little brother…nothing…he was just horrified at what he had seen.

We were a one-car family in 1963 and my father was at work.  Mom called a neighbor to take me to the hospital.  I loved my mom.  She was so brave and strong.  She was 24 years old at that time.  She comforted me and carefully put me into the neighbor’s car, took me to the hospital. The nurses were awesome. The Doctor was gentle, but as they started peeling the very flammable flannel pajamas away from my leg, the pain became intense, I started screaming for the one person who was not there.

“I want my Daddy!  Where is my Daddy!” I cried.

“He’s coming, honey,” Mom assured me.

I was laying on my stomach and the way the table was positioned; I could see down the hospital hallway. And I saw a man running. He was swerving and dodging people and gurneys like a running back through an NFL defensive line. The louder I screamed the faster he ran.

It was my Dad.

When he got there, the pain was just as intense as they pulled charred skin away from raw meat and dressed my 3rd degree burned leg. But it was somehow better now. My father was with me.

Your Heavenly Father loves you. Jesus never grew tired of teaching about this love. So He would say, ‘Why do you worry about your life, what you’re going to eat, what you’re going to drink…why do you worry? Consider the lilies of the field, they neither toil nor spin. They never restructure. They don’t attend motivational seminars to release the redwood within them. Yet, look at them,’ He says. ‘Next to them, Solomon looks like he bought his clothes at a thrift shop. Now, if God showers such beauty on the grass, which is here today and gone tomorrow, won’t He clothe you?’

Jesus says, ‘Just think about the birds in the air. They have no fear. They don’t live in worry. They don’t have high blood pressure or colitis. They don’t hoard food or buy a gun. How does it happen they have enough to eat? It’s not by an accident. Every time they eat, they’re being fed by the Father.”

Jesus teaches us what it looks like to trust the Father.

If your life is on fire and burning down before you just pause and imagine what it would be like for you to live, moment by moment, day by day, in the constant awareness of the love of the Father. That God knows about you, knows about your sin, about your junk, and He still delights in you.

You don’t have to worry; you don’t have to live in fear. You can live from moment to moment in the warmth and tenderness of the love of God – and stop the buzzing distractions that we call the world, the crazy race to prove how important or significant or attractive you are.

You are held in the hand of God—if you belong to Him.

You live in the Father-love of God—if you belong to Him.

If you don’t belong to Him—you have something to worry about.

Joe (age 5), Robbie (age 3), Jay (age 4)
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The Pearl of Great Price

 The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. Matthew 13:45-46

What is the Summum bonum of life, the value above all values? Jesus called it “the Kingdom of Heaven”. What exactly is that? I believe it is the integration of God’s rule into all reality. It is living in such a way as to bring the eternal values to bear on the earthly and it is the ability to recognize Kingdom enterprise when it appears.

However, when I put a higher value on non-kingdom merchandise and activities—-spiritual dissonance occurs. In fact, the elevation of anything exclusive to God’s rule is idolatry.

Have you ever made a large purchase and then as you drove it away or drove away from the mortgage company where you signed the countless documents, you begin to get an uneasy feeling? We call this buyer’s remorse. I fear I have paid too much for something but now it is too late. Without exception, I will wind up paying too much when I put ultimate trust in that which is not of God, but in one of God’s creations.

How do we discern our way into recognition of what is and what is not of eternal worth?

Bernard of Clairvaux in On Loving God developed a continuum of successive stages toward real fulfillment.

The love of self for self’s sake

We all begin our journey here. The world revolves around me. We are aware of our needs and nothing else. This is narcissism or egocentric living. It is how we all started out as infants.

As a teenage boy, I lived only for my needs. I lived a life of extravagant hedonism. I did what I wanted when I wanted and with whom I wanted. I had no care of the damage I was doing to those around me. My life was all about me. (Over the years I have lapsed into that phase more often than I care to count.)

While it is natural, and the beginning point of our spiritual journey—-it must be left behind for it will lead to a destructive life.

C. S. Lewis spoke once of being awakened in the middle of the night during his bachelor days and not being able to go back to sleep. It was totally dark and utterly still in his bedroom at Magdalen College. There was no way to perceive anything there outside himself. It was as if he were alone in a vacuous black hole. Suddenly he sat bolt upright in bed, for it dawned on him that such isolation was the logical end of a self-centered life.

“What if,” he found himself asking, “we get in eternity exactly what we’ve lived for in time?” This means if we’ve truly loved others and beauty and ideas and causes beyond ourselves, we shall continue to participate in that realm of richness. But if we’ve lived only for ourselves—if every thought and concern has revolved around the self and the self alone—could it be that all we shall get will be ourselves and nothing else?

Such a condition would amount to total isolation, which is similar to that worst of all punishments, short of capital punishment—namely, solitary confinement. Such a fate cuts across the very heart of what we human beings are and need. To be utterly and totally alone makes even the images of a burning Hell seem mild in comparison.

We’ve no choice about beginning our lives in such self-centeredness, but we do have a choice as to whether or not we remain there.

The love of God for Self’s sake.

At this stage, there is a growing awareness of realities outside of ourselves. There are other entities, yet the focus is still very much on ourselves. We love God for all that God can do for us.

The other day I listened to my first sermon from over forty years ago. I was shocked at what I was saying. Not only was the delivery halting and stammering, but the perspective was certainly Joe-centered. I loved God, but for what God was doing for me. I told stories of only having enough money to wash my clothes in the machines while I was in college and not having enough to dry them. I would hang the wet clothes all over my dorm room. I was getting weary of this process, so I prayed and asked God to provide some money to dry my clothes. I went to the laundry room and checked the empty washing machines and dryers and found enough loose change to dry my clothes. I said in my sermon that that proved that God was interested in an insignificant college student.

While that is theologically true, it also shows us that I love God for what God was doing for me. I was loving God for self’s sake. That is better than loving self for self’s sake, but only that.

What happens when you love God for self’s sake and God doesn’t come through for you like you asked. What if he doesn’t give you enough money to dry your clothes? What if he doesn’t heal your brother and he dies anyway? What if he doesn’t grant your financial wishes and you have to file for bankruptcy?

I will tell you what our temptation is when God doesn’t come through for us like we think He ought: we tend to cut off communication with God. We pout and pull back from engaging relationship with Him. While this stage is better than the first stage, it is still manipulative and will ultimately never satisfy all the needs of our hearts.

The love of God for God’s sake.

This is a love for not what He can do for us but loving Him for His own intrinsic value. There are reasons to worship God that have nothing to do with our needs but only with the wonder of who God is. God didn’t have to be the way God is, that beautiful wonder of a Being that is too marvelous for human eyes to behold. But he is more wonderful than words can express, and we love to be in his presence.

I remember when my oldest son Cole was about 4 or 5 years old and I was trying to do some writing in my study at home, he came into the room and just stood beside me. I asked him what he wanted, and he said, “Nothing Daddy. I just want to be with you.” He could have asked for the world at that point, and I would have found a way to get it for him. It is one of those joy-filled moments that I will forever cherish.

I long to be the kind of man who goes to the presence of the Father and says, “I simply want to be with You and glory in what You are, not in what You can give me.”

If I had been putting this continuum together, I’d have made this the ultimate level. If I could learn to love God for the sake of who God is—wouldn’t that be the pinnacle?  But this wise old saint thought different.

The love of self for God’s sake.

I was shocked when I first read that, but as I thought about it, I realized the wisdom. Who is the most difficult person in the world for you to love?  For me—–it is me. One of my deepest issues with God goes back to the very first thing He did for me—-create me.

For some reason, the body I have, the mind I have, the broken family system into which I was born—-none of these are easy for me to celebrate. There is much about my very being that I simply don’t like. Even though I remember Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount that I should love my enemies, I often find it very difficult to value the enemy inside my own skin.

Don’t you?

One time during those confusing and awkward junior high years my dad asked me about how I felt about myself. I wasn’t self-aware enough to be able to answer. I was silent. He asked, “Are you self-conscious about the size of your ears?  I know I was when I was your age.” I thought, “No. I didn’t realize I had big ears. Now I am concerned about them.” But I do remember that I didn’t regard the way I was created as good.

So—-I think Bernard was right when he said that the highest stage of development is when we learn to love self for God’s sake.

When God created all things in Genesis, how did He describe it? “Good, good, very, very, good.” The question is this: Am I a created being? If the answer is yes—-then how does God view me?  “Good, very good.” He has placed a high value on me.

Each one of us, as we were created, is the pearl of great price, believing fulfillment lies in affirming that what God did in creation was good, and letting that become our joy surely as the pearl merchant found joy in what he found.

I am a favored son of the God of the universe. He loves me as if I were the only person ever created. He thinks of me as good—-very good. He values and loves me because he is God, and I am Joe. Isn’t that enough reason to value me? If not, I have other problems.

Part of what Jesus means when he describes the “kingdom of Heaven” is that He longs for the day that I will be able to discern the value of what He deems valuable.

The day that happens is the day the Kingdom comes to earth bit by bit and moment by moment.

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As Is

It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you—for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the Lord loved you… Deuteronomy 7:7-8a

Grace is the act of radical acceptance. Jesus was all about grace.

This is what is hard and beautiful about the Christian faith. Because our faith, unique from all other religions, says “Nobody is disqualified on the one hand, and nobody is good enough on the other.”

It’s all about that grace, that grace, that grace.

Grace is why pimps and prostitutes flocked to Jesus because they understood that their past didn’t keep them from life with God. But this is also why many of the priests, professors, and the pious had a hard time with Jesus because their past didn’t get them any special favors with God. Nobody is disqualified and nobody is good enough for life with God.

John Ortberg tells about how sometimes stores have an “As Is” section. You can find a section of merchandise where you can get a great deal. The tip-off is that there is a little tag attached to the clothes in this section, and that tag always has the same two words on it: AS IS.

This is a euphemistic way of saying, “These are damaged goods.” Sometimes they’re called slightly irregular. You’re going to find a flaw here: a stain that will not come out, a zipper that won’t zip, a button that won’t butt. We’re not going to tell you where the flaw is; you’re going to have to look for it. But we know it’s there. So, when you find it—and you will find it—don’t come whining and sniveling to us about it.

You won’t get any refunds or exchanges or sympathy. Don’t expect perfection. Not here! You have received a fair warning! If you want this item, there’s only one way to obtain it. You must take it As Is.

I spoke with a man one time about the possibility of a friend of mine moving to my home state to pastor. I asked the man if he knew of any churches large enough to support a full-time pastor. He named a couple then he said something that really grabbed my attention. He said, “First Baptist Such and Such Church might be an option. It is not much to look at right now, but, because of its attractive building and location, it has great potential.”

When a pastor enters a relationship with the local expression of the bride of Christ, we are entering a covenant relationship. We dare not approach that relationship based on potential. We don’t treat any other significant relationship that way. We don’t enter friendships based upon the potential of the friend. We don’t have children based on their potential. We better not enter a marriage based on the potential of our future spouse.

Suppose we did. Let’s imagine that we fell in love with a person based on what they could be instead of who they actually are. How might that relationship turn out? “Potential” is an adjective that means “having or showing the capacity to become or develop into something in the future.” If we get married based on the capacity of our spouse to develop into something in the future, we are going to manipulate them at best and control them through power moves at worst.

Falling in love with your spouse’s potential is a great recipe for a second marriage.

We don’t love our children based on what they could be, we love them for who they are. We don’t love and accept our friends for who they could be, we love and accept them for who they are. That is what grace is all about.

But what about Christian leadership? Should we not be desiring to catalyze a group to move forward in their effectiveness to be salt and light in our local communities? Maybe. But I’ve been a pastor for a very long time, and I can tell you from personal and painful experience that it is very easy to morph loving persuasion and gentle invitation to manufacturing a captivating vision that produces guilt and manipulation.

I’ve read the books on leadership from Stephen Covey to Jim Collins. And I can tell you that those books are excellent at putting an organization on a good trajectory for growth and positive impact. They are very helpful for improving the bottom line and enlarging market share. But the challenge is the church of Jesus Christ is not a business, a non-profit, or an NGO.

It is the bride of Christ.

We don’t treat a bride based on her potential. We love her “As Is” whether she ever reaches her potential or not. If we only love her capacity to become or develop into something in the future, we will manipulate her. And manipulation might get behavior modification for a season, but it will never produce lasting change.

The strangest thing, however, is that the more we love our spouses, friends, and children, they will change. Because love changes us. It might be an imperceptible change. It might come at a glacier pace. But love changes people.

December 29th, 2021, my wife and I celebrated our fortieth wedding anniversary. I can tell you without equivocation that it is the steadfast love of the bride of my youth that has been the greatest change agent in my life. Her constant love is the lens through which I see the faithfulness of God. Her gentle wisdom is the greatest nutrient in the soil of my heart for the Word of God to find root. The look in her eyes reminds me that I am the beloved of God. Her love has changed me.

I love what the late author and ethicist Lewis Smedes said one time, ““My wife has been married to five men… every one of them has been me.”

There is a reason the Bible doesn’t use the metaphor of business to refer to the church. The two metaphors frequently used are the bride and the family. We would do well to not manipulate either of those by only loving the avatar of their potential.

The church is not a problem to be solved, she is a bride to be loved—as is.

And she’s not just anyone’s bride, either.

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