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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Chapter Four of an Unnamed Novel

“Hi!” said a fleshy, rose-faced boy trying to sound older than he was. “Dad owns these cattle. I guess I’m going to ride back of the herd with you.

The boy looked at the kid, sizing him up, looked at his horse, his tack, the way he sat his horse, and decided he’d spent little time on the horse and probably inside a polled yard.

 “Well, looks like you and I are going to be friends. Dad says that after this cattle drive I’m going to spend the summer on the ranch with you and that crusty old man. I guess I’m supposed to learn how to cowboy from him. Dad says if I learn from him, I’ll know the old ways.”

The boy frowned. This was the first time he had heard that there would be a kid his age up at the ranch all summer. The news hit him hard. There would be an intruder into his ordered and private world.

He swallowed and said, “Okay. Well, we better get around to the far end of that holding pasture so when they open this gate, we can push through.”

They reined their horses towards the gate where a dark-faced Mexican opened and let them through as if he were some ancient knight guarding a castle. The yearling steers that were milling about began to bawl and push against each other, crowding and bunching all hide and bone.

The old man sat his horse as if God had imagined him a cowboy at the beginning of time; as if the horse and man were one. He nudged the bay with his knees, laid the reins on the neck of the horse and the gelding turned and began a slow walk up the road towards the ranch. The old man called over his shoulder, “Come on, steers! Come on!”

The calls of the cowboys on the flanks and the push from the boys in the far end of the herd moved them through the gate. They followed the old man like dogs following their master. The beasts moved in a languid flow, mixing colors and shapes. Dust curled from the ground in their passing.

“Git up there, steers!” shouted the boy in a voice higher than he had wished. “Git, steers.” His arm rose stiff and outstretched as if painting the broad side of a barn. “Git up there!” Voices clipped and unintelligible began floating over the moving beasts, whistles, and clucks of tongues, each cowboy thinking his particular bark to the steer’s appropriate communication to keep moving up the road.

The herd ambled up the winding road, and it began to feel to the boys in the back of the herd that they were pushing a rope in the dirt. The steers bunched and broke at narrows in the road and the cowboys on the flanks chased down uncooperative animals to bring them back to the herd.

“Man, this dust is horrible back here!” shouted the kid over the shoulders of the steers towards the boy.

“Yeah, and the cow crap is so deep my horse is slipping in it. We almost went down a couple of times.”

They worked their horses towards the center of the rear of the herd so that they could talk without shouting. The kid had wrapped a bright red kerchief around his face like a bandit. As he approached the boy, he pulled it down and said, “When do you think we’ll get lunch?” His white teeth showed behind brown lips that had collected so much dust from being licked; it looked like he’d been dipping snuff.

The boy shrugged and said he didn’t know. Said he’d heard there was an intersection of old logging roads about seven miles ahead of where the lunch truck would be. Each cowboy would pick up a sandwich and soda as the herd passed by.

“This is fun, ain’t it?” the kid said.

“I reckon,” said the boy.

But there was no delight in his eyes. Only a benign look of uncertainty. As if something could change at any moment, without warning.

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God Came Near

So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying: Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which is translated, “God with us.”   Matthew 1:22-23

Recently one of my ten-year-old granddaughters got in trouble with their dad while visiting our home. She was sitting on the stairs in some sort of time out. Her countenance was sad and serious, and she was holding her face in her hands.

I sat down beside her on the stairs where we silently sat together for a couple of minutes. Then I leaned towards her and said, “I love you.” She laid her head against my shoulder and said, “I love you too, Grandpa.”

We stayed like that for a few more minutes and then I got up and left her sitting there while I went outside to finish up a project I had been working on.

Presence is gentle but powerful.

The Bible is only three chapters old, and mankind is not near God anymore. God is left walking alone in the Garden He had created for us asking mankind, “Where are you?” And from that question on, the rest of the story of Scripture is the tale of God coming to be near us whether we know it or care about it or not.

From Noah to Abraham; from Moses to Elijah; from King David to Isaiah, the entire story of the Older Testament is about God pursuing mankind. About God trying to get close to us.

And this long, epic story comes to a climax in a little village called Bethlehem where a baby is born who is called Emmanuel—God is with us.

It was announced one bleak evening by an angel to a poor young couple pregnant under mysterious circumstances—God is fully and finally with us. The birth of Jesus is God coming among us. Moving into our neighborhood, sitting on our stairs, becoming one of us. 

And God comes among us, not as some celebrated official with a huge fanfare or accolade; God comes near to us in ultimate vulnerability and weakness as a helpless, squirming little infant born to two teenagers in a dark and damp cave.

This is how God chooses to come near us…to become with us.

We call this, theologically, the incarnation. It comes from the Latin term that means “in meat.” 

The birth of Jesus is God descending among us—in meat, in our very flesh and bone. God became breakable, vulnerable, and helpless so that He could be near to us.

IF you think about it, for people with bodies, important things like love have to be embodied. God had to be embodied, or else people with bodies would never in a trillion years understand about love.                    

As we celebrate Christmas this evening, I want to invite you to hang on for dear life to the incarnation. The reason is because I know some of the stories in this room…

  • Some of you will spend this holiday season alone.
  • Some of you will experience family conflict as you gather with those who share your last name.
  • For some of you this is a season of incredible sadness.
  • Some of you have experienced loss in your families and friendships that would make the rest of us stagger under that load…

Here is the good news that I want to invite you to hang onto for dear life: God is near you.

Be still, my soul, for God is near,
The great High Priest is with thee now!
The Lord of Life himself is here,
Before whose face the angels bow.

To make thy heart his lowly throne,
Thy Saviour God in love draws nigh;
He gives himself unto his own,
For whom he once came down to die.  (
William Dalrymple Maclagan)

The Incarnation is a “riches to rags” story. That’s amazing . . . but it’s not the best part.

The God who had known nothing but perfection takes on human suffering. He who had only been worshipped by angels was now mocked by cynics and hypocrites.

He was despised and rejected by other people, but He took on so much more than that kind of external hostility. Internally, He took on our worry, our fear, and our loneliness.

At one point, He says, “Now my heart is troubled.” He uses this word troubled to describe unbelievable anguish. He took on our guilt. He took on our suffering. He took the punishment of our sin on Himself. He took on His own shoulders the sin of the many. He took up the cause of all the black sheep.

The angels watch as the Eternal steps into time, as the Infinite is confined to space, as Absolute Authority becomes weak, as Perfection takes on sin.

But that’s not the best part.

I’ll tell you a little story, and then I’ll tell you the best part.

I have always been a Denver Broncos fan. It has been difficult these past few years to maintain that loyalty. I remember watching the Broncos when they wore striped socks. For years they were the laughingstock first for the American Football League and then for the National Football League. They didn’t have very many stand out players. But that all changed in the mid-1970s.

It came to pass in those days, that the phone rang one day, and it was a man named Donnie Dee, who used to play tight end for the Seattle Seahawks, but had become the regional director of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in Colorado. A mutual friend of ours had told him that I was a decent speaker and that he might consider having me speak at an FCA function.

So, Donnie invited me to preach at a gathering at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. There were about 500 students there that day for the Air Force game and other festivities. I took my oldest son Cole; at the time he was about 6 years old.

Donnie Dee came up to me and said Randy Gradishar was going to speak right before me. I was blown away. Randy Gradishar! My hero. The NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1978. The anchor of the famed Orange Crush Defense of the late 70’s. I couldn’t believe it. I wish I had prepared a better talk!

But something happened on the way from Denver down to Colorado Springs and at the last minute, Gradishar couldn’t give his testimony. I was sad and relieved at the same time—more sad.

I told Donnie that Gradishar was one of my heroes and that I had so badly wanted to meet him and introduce him to my son. (Truth is I wanted to meet him more than I wanted to introduce him to my son.)

I did the talk…it was okay.  Could have done better had Gradishar showed up.

We got the tickets that Donnie had given us and went to watch the game. Cole could have cared less about the game. Me too for that matter. I was replaying the sermon that didn’t connect and doing some post-editing…taking stuff out…adding stuff…. stupid when you think about it…sermon is done, and the folks have already forgotten it.

About halfway through the second quarter, someone tapped me on my shoulder. I turned around and looked up and it was Randy Gradishar. And I beheld his glory—the glory of an All-Pro Middle Linebacker, full of power and might.

I couldn’t believe it. He stuck out his hand and said, “You must be Joe Chambers.” (He knew my name) I shook his hand and introduced him to Cole. He apologized for being late. Said he had car trouble. Said he heard that the sermon went really well. Said that Donnie had told him where I was sitting: the section, row, and seat number. He asked if he could sit down and watch the game with me for a while. I stammered that I didn’t mind. He watched it with us until halftime. Great guy. Not as big as I imagined he’d be, though.

The best part was he sought me out. Found my section, row and seat. And sat down with me. Randy Gradishar knew my name and came for me.

Here’s the best part.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God. 

…(So it was) when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman…(and he), being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bond-servant, and coming in the likeness of (a baby).

The Word became flesh. The Eternal came in time. The Infinite restricted Himself to a body. Omnipotence came in weakness. Perfection came to carry our sin. But the best part is…

He came for you.

He came to your section, your row, your seat.

He knows your name.

He sat down right beside you.

He came for you.

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Let’s Put Herod Back In Christmas

When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.  Matthew 2:3

Why is it that upon hearing of Jesus’ birth Herod tries to sniff out Jesus’ location so that he can snuff out Jesus’ infant life? Why does he go on to brutally butcher Bethlehem’s babies?

Because Herod sees one of those babies as a rival to his throne. And he is absolutely right. See, this story of Jesus’ birth is a story of two colliding kings and kingdoms.

And it is even underscored in the way that Matthew writes this story. In all of this chapter, every time Matthew refers to Herod it is always “King” Herod until the Magi visit Jesus and pay Him homage. And then every time after that King Herod is no longer “King” Herod, but just Herod.

Jesus comes to the world humbly, but not modestly. We must do business with Jesus as king, as ruler of galaxies and governments and your life and mine or we will miss him and not do business with him at all.

There is a low-grade resistance in my life to allowing and acknowledging Jesus as King of my own life. I have a tendency to want to compartmentalize Jesus’ claims over me. I sometimes say to myself, “I will embrace Jesus’ requirements of holiness in my life and yours, but I will ignore His explicit call to abandon my compulsion towards anxiety and worry in my life. I will be obedient to the sexual ethic that Jesus teaches about, but I will quietly ignore His teachings about ‘loving my enemies.'”

But the truth is if Jesus is King of kings and Lord of lords, I don’t get to make Him my assistant in managing my life on my terms.

I struggle with authority. Just ask my wife. Putting on a seat belt seems like a violation of some constitutional right.

And to be fair many of us have been abused by much of the authority that we have encountered in our lives. Many parents, coaches, teachers, pastors, policemen, and others in authority have completely and horribly abused others with their position. So, it is understandable that some of us struggle with trusting authority.

But when we look at the person of Jesus, we see that He is an authority that is completely different from any kind of authority figure we have ever encountered. He turns our notions about power and authority and even God Himself completely on their heads.

Matthew wants us to see that Jesus is the world’s King. Things might look difficult, but He is in charge. And how does he do that? By sending a Brad Pitt figure riding on a white steed of victory into the most prestigious city on earth?

No.

He comes to us by stooping down into vulnerability. By submitting to all of the world’s darkness, violence, and pain.  Jesus is a king who wins by losing. He is a King who rules by serving and suffering.

After summing up the blood-soaked scene in Bethlehem, Matthew tells us this…

17 Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying:

18 “A voice was heard in Ramah,
Lamentation, weeping, and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children,
Refusing to be comforted,
Because they are no more.”

God shows us that he is the kind of King that invites us to be real with our sorrows and we can approach him with the world’s pain, tears, and desperate pleas for help. A lament is a form of praying to God that runs all the way through the scriptures. Especially in the Psalms and the Hebrew prophets.

For some time now I have been praying the words of the Psalms as a part of my daily prayers. If you read them long enough you will come across words like, “God, why did you walk off and leave me? God, I am furious with you. God, don’t you care about me? God, I wish you would just kill this person.”

When you first read those lines and start to pray them back to God you wonder if you are allowed to say those words.  They seem to be so guttural, brutal, and harsh. But apparently, we are allowed and even encouraged to do so.

When we come to God, even in brutal honesty, we are lamenting to a God who tells us all through the Scriptures that He is deeply invested in this world and cares about what goes on down here—and wants to hear from us. If I were to pray honestly to God, I would need to pray these kinds of prayers long before I pray anything else.

If you continue to read in Jeremiah 31, where Matthew lifts this line for his story, you would read about this person, Rachel, and discover that she is extremely distraught about those whom she loves. She is so pained that she can’t be comforted. But that doesn’t stop God or even slow him down.

  Keep your voice from weeping,
and your eyes from tears;
for there is a reward for your work,
says the Lord:
they shall come back from the land of the enemy;
17 there is hope for your future,
says the Lord…
             Jeremiah 31:16-17a (NRVS)

This wonderful promise tucked away in that dusty Old Testament book and this story of Jesus at work to rescue the world, on the run from an awful tyrant, and in the midst of the horrible tragedy in Bethlehem—shows us that we can be assured that God is near us and at work in us and in the world.

Eleven days before Christmas in 2012 Adam Lanza entered Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, and murdered about the same amount of children that we know historically that Herod killed in Bethlehem.

In the days that followed, as people reeled with shock and grief, they also struggled with how to feel during the festive season of Christmas. It was during those days that a columnist for the New York Times named Ross Douthat, who is a Christian, wrote an article and I want to share a portion with you now…

The New Testament…seeks to establish God’s goodness through a narrative rather than an argument, a revelation of his solidarity with human struggle rather than a philosophical proof of his benevolence.

In the same way, the only thing that my religious tradition has to offer to the bereaved of Newtown today — besides an appropriately respectful witness to their awful sorrow — is a version of that story, and the realism about suffering that it contains.

That realism may be hard to see at Christmastime, when the sentimental side of faith owns the cultural stage. But the Christmas story isn’t just the manger and the shepherds and the baby Jesus, meek and mild.

The rage of Herod is there as well, and the slaughtered innocents of Bethlehem, and the myrrh that prepares bodies for the grave. The cross looms behind the stable — the shadow of violence, agony and death.

In the leafless hills of western Connecticut, this is the only Christmas spirit that could possibly matter now.

This is the good news that followers of Jesus can hold on to in our violent times.

We worship a God who knows what it is like to be from a little town where there was a senseless tragedy and horrific loss of life. I hang onto that reality about God when I struggle to see hope in my world. God knows what it is like to be displaced, poor, and a nobody.

Jesus is a King, but a different kind of King.

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The Christmas Story

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.

…(So it was) when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman…(and he), being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bond-servant, and coming in the likeness of (a baby).

For unto us this Child was born, unto us this Son was given; and the government is on his shoulders. And His name is called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. So all went to be registered, everyone to his city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. 

So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. And she brought forth her first-born son and wrapped Him in swaddling clothes, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid.

Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.”

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying:

“ Glory to God in the highest,

 and on earth peace,

 goodwill toward men!”

So it was, when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds said to one another, “Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.”

And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger. Now when they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child. And those who heard it marveled at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart. Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told them.

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. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. 

There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus. 

___________________________________________________________

John 1:1-5, Galatians 4:4; Philippians 2:6-7; Isaiah 9:6; Luke 2:1-20; John 3:16-17; Romans 8:1  (New King James Version)

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Companions for the Journey

In the introduction to his book on Christian leadership, Building Below the Waterline, Gordon MacDonald uses a very descriptive metaphor for what is most important and often missing in Christian leadership today.

David McCullough’s book The Great Bridge tells a fascinating story about the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, which arches the East River and joins Manhattan to Brooklyn.

In June 1872, the chief engineer of the project wrote: “To such of the general public as might imagine that no work had been done on the New York tower, because they see no evidence of it above the water, I should simply remark that the amount of the masonry and concrete laid on that foundation during the past winter, under water, is equal in quantity to the entire masonry of the Brooklyn tower visible today above the waterline”.

The Brooklyn Bridge remains a major transportation artery in New York City today because 135 years ago the chief engineer and his construction team did their most patient and daring work where no one could see it: on the foundations of the towers below the waterline.

It is one more illustration of an ageless principle in leadership: the work done below the waterline (in a leader’s soul) that determines whether he or she will stand the test of time and challenge. This work is called worship, devotion, spiritual discipline. It’s done in quiet, where no one but God sees.

One of the most important below the water line pylons for anyone, but especially for a Christian leader is finding companions for the journey.

When the Apostle Paul was at the end of his life, he wrote young Timothy a beautiful letter, and towards the end of that letter he says,

For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing.

Be diligent to come to me quickly; for Demas has forsaken me, having loved this present world, and has departed for Thessalonica—Crescens for Galatia, Titus for Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for ministry. 2 Timothy 4:6-12

The word “quickly” in Greek is the word that we get our English word “tachometer,” a measurement of velocity. Paul is saying, “Timothy, come to me with velocity!”

Often, we think of Paul like Taylor Caldwell in her book, The Lion of God–strong, sure, self-sufficient. But here we see an old dying man who is lonely, in need of intimate fellowship.

Towards the end of his ministry on earth, Jesus climbed a mountain with three companions for his journey—Peter, James, and John. While there on that mountain he met with two other companions as they encouraged him about his “departure” —Elijah and Moses. Then in the garden, just hours before His death, His dying heart craved companionship. He said to those same three companions, “Can’t you watch for Me and pray even for an hour?”

If Jesus required companions for his journey, and Paul needed Timothy and Mark to come to him with velocity, you and I need companions for our journey.

Author Scott Sauls reminds us,

Almost every healthy pastor I know meets regularly with a therapist and/or spiritual director. Shepherds who lack shepherding risk being eaten by wolves. Even worse, they risk becoming wolves themselves.

Or as I sometimes say, “Every pastor needs a pastor. A pastor without a pastor is usually a pastor trying to be a messiah.”

A companion for the journey is an intimate, life-giving friend who helps me pay attention to God. They will orient you towards God by asking you good questions. For example, let me give you a few that I have found helpful. I call these Spiritual Orientation Questions…

Where are you? Genesis 3:9

What do you want? John 1:38

Can you drink the cup? Matthew 20:20-23

Do you love me? John 21:17

A sacred companion will say to you, “How is God speaking to you in this? How does God want to be at work in your life through this? And how are you responding to him?”

If you find someone you might want to be a spiritual friend, don’t schedule a lunch with that person and say, “I want you to be my spiritual friend. I want to meet with you and be shaped by you and be committed to you every day for the rest of my life.” Because if that person is healthy at all, they will run out of the restaurant. And if they’re not, you’re going to end up in worse shape than they are.

Go slow, be patient. Test the relationship by taking little relational risks. Move beyond polite conversation. Polite conversation is built on trying not to hurt somebody’s feelings. And that’s not a bad thing. Spiritual friendship is different. You might begin by disclosing some area of struggle, not the deepest one in your life, but a significant one. Is there a level of empathy there?

Do they listen well? Or do they only want to focus on talking about themselves?

Are they wise and discerning in their response?

Is there a judgmental spirit attached to them?

Do they honor confidentiality?

Do they gossip with you about mutual friends?

While I am a huge proponent of professional therapy and/or spiritual direction, sometimes a good companion for your journey can come from surprising places. A few years ago, I was going through a barren time in my professional life when a man in the church I pastored called and asked if I wanted to have coffee with him.

At my favorite hangout, we had the following conversation.

“How are you doing today, pastor?” he asked.

“I’m doing okay.”

“You seemed a little discouraged last Sunday,” he said.

“Yeah, no pastor spends hours preparing a sermon only to preach it to more chairs than people.”

“It was a good sermon, Joe. I needed to hear it,” he said.

“Thanks.”

My friend is about ten years older than me, maybe more than ten years. He has a shock of white hair, a soft and smooth face, and speaks with a deep and warm Texas drawl. He laughs often. It is easy to be in his presence. No posing, no pretense, and no pissing contests.  Just the simple, quiet presence of a good man.

Later that evening I mentioned to my wife about the conversation and said how encouraging it was for me.

“What did he say that picked up your spirits?” she asked.

“Nothing,” I said.

There are friends that you seek and cultivate. I have friends like that. I think of my friend Rob, Scott, and Cameron. I saw them from a distance and said to myself, “Joe, you would do good to have them as your friends.” And now they are great friends. Growing deeper as the months and years roll by.

But then there are surprising companions for your journey. You didn’t see them coming, but they showed up at just the right time. That’s the way it was with my coffee-drinking friend from Texas. He came along at just the right time. And I have to say that while I was deeply and darkly discouraged that day, my friend didn’t TRY to encourage me. He didn’t even buy my coffee. He just sat with me, listened to me, and laughed at anything remotely funny.

Sit. Listen. Laugh.

Pretty good ingredients for buoying a sagging soul. Every spiritual leader needs a companion for the journey. Sacred companions.

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