Holes to Heaven

Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great!…Come out of her, my people, so that you will not share in her sins, so that you will not receive any of her plagues… Revelation 18:2,4

Go your way, eat the fat, drink the sweet, and send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not sorrow, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” Nehemiah 8:10

Now think for a moment about the relationship between joy and strength. When you have a joyful marriage, it’s not terribly hard to resist sexual temptation. When you have the joy of serving in an area of your spiritual gifts and passion, you find yourself looking forward to being a servant, not tempted to drop out.

In general, there is an inverse correlation between joy level and vulnerability to temptation. The higher your joy, the less likely Babylon is to be tempting.

So, Nehemiah says, “Construct your life around certain activities that will produce the joy of the Lord in your life. Have a day occasionally set aside for the joy of the Lord.” Eat food that brings joy. Drink sweet drink that brings joy. Read Scriptures that produce joy. You have some people that bring joy to you. Have a day of celebration and hang out with them. You have other people that suck joy out of you. They’re like black holes of joy. So, on those days of celebration just tell them, “I can’t be with you today. This is my joy day. I’ll be with you tomorrow, but not today.”

You need to develop a joyful life if you want to make it through to the end.

Several years ago, I took my two oldest boys to Deadman Lakes in Colorado.  A place I first went to when I was a boy with my father and brother.  It was our rite of passage in to manhood.  So, when Cole and Clinton were of age, I took them as well.  Cole was 15 and Clinton was 12.

The following is a journal entry from that trip in 2001:

I got cold last night so I decided to go to bed a little early.  Since my bed is in the cook area under the rain fly, the boys had to leave.  They decided to go fishing in the shallows where the fish were spawning.  I could hear them laughing like it was Christmas morning.

They had been gone about 30 minutes when Clint came running over the little rise and yelled, “Hey Dad!  I caught a really big one!”  I said, “Good job son.”

He ran back over the rise to fish some more.

I lay in my purple sleeping bag with my face to the lake and began to weep.

“Thank you Lord for my boys.
Thank you for this moment.
Thank you for this place.”

I suppose I prayed that about 20 times while the tears puddle around my cheeks in my sleeping bag.  It was a very precious moment and one I will cherish the rest of my life.

I wondered why Clinton ran over the rise to tell me he caught a fish.  I had seen him catch them yesterday and earlier that day.

I imagined him landing the fish, laughter dancing between brothers as they together got the hook out of the fish’s mouth and put it back in the water.  Then Clint, with joy still bubbling out—not wanting to waste any of it—brought me some as I lay in my purple sleeping bag.

Is that the nature of true and pure joy—the giving and the sharing of it?  He didn’t come tell me about the fish because he needed my approval.  He knows he already has that.  He didn’t come tell me the good news because he wanted me to help him do something or to get anything from me.  He came and told me the good news because joy had filled him up and he wanted to share it.

That brings me to another question:  Can one give joy or must it be shared?  I suspect that true joy that anyone else experiences is joy-overflowed.  Clint didn’t’ give me manufactured joy.  He shared his joy.  And in the sharing —I was filled.  But, as I was filled—none of his joy diminished.

But where did Clint’s joy come from?  Did his joy come from the act of catching a big trout?  Can true and pure joy come from an accomplishment?  I don’t think so.  I think it is nurtured in relationship.  No relationship—no joy.

As I have thought about this journal entry written at 12,000 feet above sea-level so many years ago, I have wondered if somehow joy is tied to sorrow.  Perhaps it is accentuated by sadness.  Towards the end of his life Jesus was comforting his disciples about his soon-coming death and said that their sorrow would be turned into joy.

Maybe when we are acutely aware of what sin has done to this world and the utter ruin that seems to dominate the headlines, it could be, if we let it, a reminder of the joy that is promised to us in the coming life—a joy unspeakable and full of glory.

If we don’t bow our knee to Babylon. It we stay true to the Lord. If we keep walking in obedience—a long obedience in the same direction.

One of Clinton‘s favorite musical artists when he was a boy was a guy named Jack Johnson. Johnson has a song about childhood colliding with the harsh realities of adulthood and there is a line in that song that says,

And there were so many fewer questions
When stars were still just the holes to heaven

Maybe when Clint ran over the little rise and told me about the fish he caught he really just poked a hole into heaven.

To the degree we stay true to the Lord and are diligent to bring ‘up there down here,’ we are joining Jesus in poking holes into heaven. And that is a good thing because this world needs all the light it can get.

And I need the joy.

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The Mouth of a Fool

When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but the prudent are restrained in speech. Proverbs 10:19

Look back on your years as far back as you can. What were the most breathtaking, exhilarating, emotion-producing 300 seconds you ever experienced?

I think I could make a good case that if you’d been able to talk about it at the time, the most exciting five minutes of your life would be the very first five. After nine months of darkness and isolation, you discover there’s a whole world out there full of colors and tastes and sounds and sensations and other people. You discover you’ve entered into a realm beyond your wildest imaginings.

I think if you could have talked you would have said something like, “Mom, Dad, I had no idea! I actually had some reservations about leaving the womb. But now I see that this is a much better arrangement. I wouldn’t have missed this for anything.” It’s very possible that the most exciting five minutes of your life were the first five minutes after you were born. It’s just been all downhill ever since those five minutes.

But I believe that’s nothing compared to what’s to come. I think the most amazing five minutes you will ever experience will be the first five minutes after you die.

For centuries, the brightest minds that have ever lived have devoted whole lifetimes to try to penetrate what lies beyond that veil. They’ve tried to learn, “What is it that lies on the other side of death?” And five minutes after, you will know.

Those five minutes will happen for every one of us. Think about the sights that you’re going to see, the sounds that you will hear, the experience that you will have in your first five minutes of eternity.

One of the most attractive things about those next “first five minutes” will be that I don’t have to regret words that I have spoken. Rude words I’ve spoken to my wife. Careless words I have spoken to my sons. Unkind words I have said about friends. And out-and-out hateful words I have uttered about President Trump.

How often do you say something now and then you wish so much you could take it back?

Recently I shared a meal with a friend. We caught up on our respective summer activities. Then I asked him how he was doing. And he began to share with me about a particular physical ailment that he was experiencing. He said, “Joe, I don’t know how to pray about it. I don’t want to lose my eyesight. I want to continue to work. It really has me…

“I know what you mean about not knowing how to pray about somethings,” I interrupted.

Then I told him a 5-minute story about me. When I was finished he said, “Well, anyway I’m trying figure out how to pray about it and how to be with the reality of my body failing me.”

Our breakfast ended, but that conversation has haunted me. Why did I inject a Joe-story when that man was sharing his heart with me? I failed my friend. Instead of being present with him and entering into his story of confusion and uncertainty, I told him one of my experiences. I thought about it all the way to Denver to celebrate Nette’s birthday with her family. I thought about it while watching the film “War for the Planet of the Apes.” I thought about last night on the drive back from Denver.

I wrote my friend a note asking him to forgive me for not paying attention to his heart by filling up the space between us with my own words. He said he forgave me.

Thank God.

Ever wish you could just go back to a conversation and hit the “delete” button? Imagine never having to feel that regret again. The first five minutes in heaven there will be no gossip, no sarcasm, no manipulating, your heart will be full of affection and courage.
I’m telling you, it will be the greatest five minutes of your life. And then the next five minutes will be greater. Then the next five will be greater, and that will be eternity.

And one of the reasons it will be so wonderful is the promise from the last book of the Bible that describes the truth about the nature of a Christ-follower in heaven, In their mouth no lie was found; they are blameless. Revelation 14:10

Thank God.

Dear Lord,

Help me to live with the constant awareness that my mouth is either and instrument destruction or a source of encouragement. Your Word says that you have put eternity in the hearts of those who love You, would you put eternity in my mouth? Help me to hold my tongue when I am tempted to impress others with my words. But let it loose, Lord, when I see an opportunity to speak words of life and love.

Sincerely,

joe

 

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The Triumph of the Lamb

They have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb
    and by the word of their testimony,
for they did not cling to life even in the face of death.
12 Rejoice then, you heavens
    and those who dwell in them!
But woe to the earth and the sea,
    for the devil has come down to you
with great wrath,
    because he knows that his time is short!”  Revelation 12:11-12

That’s enough for me. That’s enough for you.

I recently finished a biography of Dwight D. Eisenhower and it described the invasions of Normandy.  The bloodiest few hours of the war.  At the end of D-Day, at the end of that one day, in one sense, really nothing had changed. The vast majority of the continent of Europe was still as it had been the day before, under the power of the swastika. Evil reigned through the whole continent. There was only this one little plot of ground, a few feet of sand on an obscure stretch of beach in one lonely country, that was not under the domination of the enemy. But that one tiny stretch of land, that one tiny little beach, that was enough.

The truth is, at the end of that one day, everything was changed because now there was an opening, just a crack — a tiny little crack at first. But it would get a little larger the next day, and a little larger the day after that, and a little larger the week after that. And the forces would get stronger every day.

There still was a lot of fighting to do and a lot of suffering and a lot of dying. But from that day on it was just a matter of time. Then the day came when Paris was liberated. And then the day came when all of France was liberated. Then the days came when the concentration camps were overrun and prisoners got set free.

Then the day came when Hitler destroyed himself in the bunker. And judgment came to that particular bastion of evil as it always does, as it always will, and then came V-E Day, victory. And then victory in the Pacific and the soldiers could come home. The war was over, and the enemy was defeated.

But the truth was that really victory was all sealed on D-Day. It just took a while for the battle raged for a season. But after D-Day, V-E Day, victory, that was just a matter of time. John says this earth has fallen under a dark power, and then one day a woman gave birth to a son, a male child, who was to rule all the nations with a rod of iron.

He taught about, and he lives in a kingdom. He lived a kind of life that every son of Adam and every daughter of Eve had always dreamed of but hardly ever hope for. Then one day, at a cost that none of us will ever fully understand, he took upon himself, on the cross, all the brokenness, all the suffering of D-Day, and all the suffering and all the sin and pain of every other day of the history of the human race since the Fall.

At the end of the Sabbath day, when his friends went to care for his body, the stone was gone. And in one sense, nothing had changed. Pilate and the chief priests were still in charge. Caesar still reigned in Rome. He didn’t even know the name of this obscure Messiah in some remote country.

The Herods and the Neros and the Hitlers would come and go, and pain and suffering and death go on today as they went on then, and nobody knew at first except a couple of women. Nobody knew it, but that was D-Day.

Now there was an opening in this fallen world, tiny at first, no bigger than the entrance of an empty tomb.

But now there was an opening, and the truth is, friends, every time you resist sin, every time you proclaim the Gospel, every time you give a portion of your resources for the spread of the kingdom, every time you offer a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name to the poor, that opening gets a little larger, and the darkness gets pushed back a little more, and the light gets a little stronger.

That’s why we exist as a church. That’s why we are called to struggle and pray and work and suffer and labor because one day liberation will come, make no mistake.

There will be a lot of fighting and a lot of suffering and a lot of dying, but D-Day already happened when hardly anybody was looking. And at the end of that one day, everything was changed, and now it’s just a matter of time.

So, John says, “Hang on. The Devil is living on borrowed time.”

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For Crying Out Loud!

But why dost thou judge thy brother? or why dost thou set at nought thy brother? for we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ. ~ Saint Paul

Often folks who come to church irritate me. You know who I am talking about. Children who were not raised in church don’t know that you don’t get up and go to the bathroom ten times during the sermon, men wearing a dirty John Deere cap into the worship area, teenage girls texting messages to one another, teenage boys wearing their pants too low, old ladies who have long since lost their ability to smell that they are putting on way too much perfume, and Oakland Raider fans in general.  These things distract me and cause me to stumble in my worship.

One time I went to a church service to hear a friend of mine preach. I noticed about four pews down that there was a young couple who seemed new to the church experience.  The reason I say that is because they were rather shabbily dressed. I thought they could have given a better effort. That’s fine, I reasoned. They are new to church. Cut them some slack.

My friend began to preach his sermon and I was really enjoying it. I felt God was teaching me and challenging me in profound ways.  Suddenly, this young couple began to kiss and cuddle.  She was kissing his earlobe and he was so close to her that there was no daylight between them.  And what was worse, is that they were in my line-of-sight to the pastor.  I couldn’t watch Pastor Dave without seeing their shameless display of PDA.

Stink eye

We are in church not a drive-in theater, for crying out loud!

I was trying to hear God but these ragamuffins were hindering me.  I tried closing my eyes and just listening. That worked for a little bit, but then I began to grow angrier remembering that I had gotten up that morning, showered, put on my best clothes, drove down to the church in the rain, put my tithe in the plate—and now I must shut my eyes to hear from the pastor.  I could have stayed home and watched Joel Hagee preach about My Best Blood Moon Now, for crying out loud.

So, I opened my eyes again and tried to be mature about it.

It didn’t work. I found myself getting more frustrated. Thought to myself, “I’m going to have to speak to that couple. I’m certain that I’m not the only person who is distracted, and in the interest of the edification of this church, I will take the responsibility to help them adjust their behavior.”

It was about this time that Jesus spoke to me,

“Joe, how about talking to Me about them.”

“Lord, it is hard to pray for someone who is irritating,” I whined.

“Tell me about it,” Jesus answered.

That made me pout, but what I heard next made me sad.

“Joe, there are countless people that want to hear from Me but they can’t because the church is self-absorbed,” Jesus said.

What do you say to that?

I left that day praying for that couple, hoping that they come back to church next week, and making a mental note to sit in front of them if they do.

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Kingdom Bringers

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

Plymouth Plantation

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

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

“Isaac, what is your profession?”

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

“Why I am a Christian, sir!”

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

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

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

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

That is my profession.

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The Wisdom of Weakness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The old Puritan prayer “Weakness” reminds me:

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

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

I find rest in that.

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Sacred Opportunity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I went in an enjoyed a wonderful pretend meal.

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

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

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

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

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

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