The Gospel of the Good Finish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank You.”

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

Poet Mary Oliver puts it this way,

Instructions for living a life.

Pay attention.

Be astonished.

Tell about it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then, unhurried and gentle, Eugene died.

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

What do you say?

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My Mother Has Cancer

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

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

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

We all laughed.

Lessons I Learned from Visiting My Mother

There is no tomorrow, only today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hope you have my Mom’s Jesus.

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God’s Slow Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s it about?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

“You must be very tense,” she said. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

However, mind that middle seat.

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The Dark Night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I thirst.” John 19:28

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Art of Giving

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

– Henri Nouwen

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

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

Let me tell you about my deacon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are never more like God than when we give.

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My Oldest Friend’s Voice

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

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

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

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

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

Knowing a friend over time arouses deep affection.

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

A Friendship Blessing

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

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

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Those People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All we have to do is flinch.

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

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

Angry Crowd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He turned.

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

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

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Desperate for God

From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God.

When I was three or four years old, we had a dog named Peppy. It was part little dog and part another little dog, but I loved that dust-colored dog. My father was the pastor of First Baptist Church of Las Animas, Colorado and a lady from that Church came over to visit my mother, who was a stay-at-home mom of three young children. The lady’s name was Mrs. Hightower. There are only three things I remember about Mrs. Hightower. One, she was a very sweet and kind woman. Second, this story I am going to tell you. And third, she was as large as a mountain.

She came in and sat down on our couch. I remember my mom trying to shoo me and my brother away so they could talk. But I stood my ground in front of Mrs. Hightower. My mother kept shooing. I kept standing. Finally, my mom said what is wrong, Joe? I said, “I can’t find Peppy.” My mother said, “Go look in the laundry room.” I did. And I looked on the back porch. The bedrooms, upstairs, kitchen—everywhere. I came back and stood vigil in front of Mrs. Hightower.

Finally, Mrs. Hightower looked at me and said, “What’s the matter, darlin?”

And as serious as a lawyer I said, “You are sitting on my dog.”

Her face blanched, she set her cup of coffee down and struggled to get up and sure enough, there was Peppy between the cushions with a look of desperate despair on his face. Mrs. Hightower apologized profusely saying that she thought poor Peppy was a throw pillow.

Poor Peppy

Joe, Robbie, Peppy, and Jay

Peppy was never the same. Peppy sat out on the porch and stared into the distance and eventually had a nervous breakdown.

Wouldn’t you?

Ever feel as if the world has sat on you and you are all alone?

In the old flannelgraph story of Jonah, imagine a conversation God might have had with the great fish.

 

God: Hey, fish…

Fish: Yes, Lord?

God: “Go pick up Jonah. Directions will be given on a need-to-know basis and I’ll tell you where to drop him off.”

Fish: “Yes, Lord.”

God: “And Fish? This is an important detail.”

Fish: “Yes, Lord?”

God: “Swallow, don’t chew.”

Fish: “Yes, Lord.”

Guess what Jonah does in the fish? He prays. From the guts of the fish, Jonah prayed to the Lord his God. And in the belly of that slimy, smelly, moist gastronomical mess, Jonah found God was already there waiting on him.

“I called to the Lord out of my distress,  and he answered me… Jonah 2:2

When you are in over your head, trust God to remember you and you pray.

Don’t forget to pray.

There is a Jonah I knew named Don his wife of 25 years left him and he was a bachelor for about 10 years. He and I would talk and he would ask about remarriage after divorce and what the bible had to say about it. I walked him through those teachings. He just couldn’t make himself date again. He took Jesus’ words very seriously and literally and he didn’t want to marry again if God forbade it.

We finally came to a position on the teaching of Jesus on divorce and remarriage he could live with and stay faithful to the Bible.

In time, he met a beautiful woman named Connie. They were perfect together. They dated for almost two years as mid-fifty-year-olds. Just trying to make sure they had made the correct choice. I married them. She made the most wonderful pecan pies and when she found I loved pecan pies, she would look for any excuse to make her pastor a pie.

Then one day Don called me and said that the test came back positive and that Connie had a brain tumor. She went through all of the horrible treatments to save her life. It kept getting worse and worse. We had a service at our church we called a “Body Life” service and we invited anyone who wanted prayer for healing to come and request it. We would anoint them with oil and pray. Never promised anyone they would be healed. We simply asked God to heal our friends.

I had begun to study Richard Foster, a famous Quaker author, and one of the things he taught was that we should pray for God to reveal His will to us before we pray for another person because the Bible teaches that if we pray anything that is according to God’s will he will grant our requests. I began to do that.

That Sunday evening, Connie and Don stepped out of the pew and began to come down the center aisle. She had a scarf wrapped tightly around her bald head. Don held her arm and walked slowly down the aisle with her. It took her a while to make it down to the front. That gave me time to pray for God to reveal to me his will for Connie and Don.

So I prayed.

And God said she would be healed—in heaven.

When they stood before me at the front of that church for prayer healing, in almost the same spot the day I married them, I knew she was going to die, but in keeping with their request, I anointed her with oil and prayed for her and asked God to come close to her and Don and reveal his glory in their relationship and in their life.

Connie died four months later. They had been married less than a year.

I went to sit with Don in his grief and said, “Don, I am so sorry. I don’t know what to say.”

He said, “God is with me, pastor. I feel him in this pain. He knew this was coming and He let me marry her. I hurt like I have never hurt in my life, but she belongs to the Lord, and I will see her again one day.”

I called to the Lord out of my distress, and he answered me…

That’s the story of Jonah. You may feel as if the world has sat on you and that you are all alone, but you would be mistaken.

Trust God to remember you.

Don’t forget to pray.

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Running From God

But Jonah ran away from the Lord…

Nineveh is a couple hundred miles north of where Jonah is standing when he heard the command to go preach and he books passage to Spain, which is where Tarshish is located.  It would be like God telling me to go to Boulder and I book passage on a train headed for San Diego.

But this isn’t really about geographical space so much as it is about relational space.  The story tells us on numerous occasions that Jonah is fleeing the presence of God.  And when it says “presence of the Lord” it literally says in Hebrew that Jonah was running from “the face of the Lord.”

When I was a child I got a Daisy BB gun. My parents gave strict rules about what I could shoot with it and what I was forbidden to shoot with it. I couldn’t shoot the windows, chickens, the dog, the cat (maybe the cat), or my little sister. Want to know which of those I shot with my shiny new bb gun? Want to know which one told on me?  And when she started crying like a little girl, I ran as far away from the house as my little legs could carry me.  The last thing I wanted was to see the face of my parents. I wanted relational distance.

Jonah wanted relational space from his heavenly Father as well. He ran from the relationship that ought to have been at his center.

And that journey away from the presence of God inevitably leads to anti-social and anti-God behaviors that only leave damaged souls in our wake.

Recently I re-read Herman Melville’s masterpiece, Moby Dick. There is a fascinating passage in this story that gets to this fundamental issue of sin. Ishmael is wandering the streets of the whaling village of New Bedford, Massachusetts searching for a ship to take him on a great whaling adventure.  One Sunday he decides to go to church and the preacher is a former whaling harpooner named, Father Mapple:

And if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists.

See, in order for our lives to have meaning, it requires disobeying ourselves. And that is hard. So, we run in the opposite direction, for we can’t stay in God’s presence and obey ourselves.

I don’t think of myself as exceptionally “sinful.” I tend to think of myself as faithful, religious, and only need a little tweaking here and there.  But Jonah fled the eyes of the Father and at the same time was a successful prophet of God who no doubt knew more about the bible than I do. When it came to morality, he would beat everyone I know (except my grandchildren and my wife) in a moral inventory.

And yet there was an area of his life that he would not hand over to God. There was a group of people he would prefer going into eternity without grace than him risking his comfortable and predictable lifestyle. If rule-keeping were all there was to be right with God then Jonah was already doing that. If cleaning up your act was all that needed to be done, then Jonah had already done that.

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Jonah needed a conversion, he needed a transformation at the soul level, and he needed a deep experience of grace.  And that is what I need and maybe you do as well.

But how does God do that when Jonah is running as fast as he can away from the Father?  God catches up with Jonah somewhere in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea and hurls a storm at him. And when God hurls something, He never misses.

Jonah is thrown into the storm and the very thing he thought would kill him, saves him. Jonah thought that underneath those angry waves was death, but it turns out that underneath those waves was love.

How can you and I be sure that when we are drowning in the storms that we know that God intends for those storms to bring about love?

We have something Jonah did not have. For you see, the story of Jonah points to one greater than Jonah. Hundreds of years after this story was written, Jesus would one day say that this story was a sign of what He came into the world to do.

In Jesus, God would throw himself into the storms of our darkness, dysfunction, and death. And no one would save Jesus, he would go all the way down to death; for you and for me. He did that so we could know, in the moments of our storms—when we feel like we are drowning—that underneath all of those waves is a firm foundation called love.

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A Lament For Two Fathers

And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers. Malachi 4:6

O Lord, we are the clay, and You our potter; and all of us are the work of Your hand.
Two fathers have permanently scarred their sons.
Why didn’t you protect those little men from evil?
Lord, the boys are men now—come close and re-form their souls.

Two fathers have permanently scarred their sons.
How do I heal the damage I’ve done?
Lord, the boys are men now—come close and re-form their souls.
One father weeps, and one is still angry.

How do I heal the damage I’ve done?
Why didn’t you protect those little men from evil?
One father weeps and one is still angry.
O Lord, we are the clay, and You our potter; and all of us are the work of Your hand.

 

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