Easter Hallelujah

April 7, 2009

God the Father desires to forgive us.

He loves redemption and restoration. He looks for ways to withhold His righteous judgment, as evident in this passage from 2 Peter 3: “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” The story of Hosea illustrates that God’s love always precedes his wrath. 

He looks for ways to satisfy his holy wrath and set us free from bondage. In the death and resurrection of Jesus—in Easter and everything it represents—two facets of God’s character emerge.

Think of the seasons. Spring follows winter, rebirth follows death. Summer, harvest, and feasting follow rebirth. Though different, ice and snow and warm rain and sweat both bring cleansing.

God does not send his children out into the desert to die. He plans to call them back into his gardens better prepared to choose a life by his die.sunset

I also think of the cities of refuge in the Old Testament where fugitives could seek refuge. I think of fields left fallow so that the nutrients in the soil might replenish and the celebration of Jubilee every fifty years to forgive debts and redistribute wealth—to give everyone a clean start. 

God has woven into every process and practice of the natural world and Judeo-Christian culture ornate designs of death, cleansing, and rebirth. We will see baptism in every minute detail of our existence if God opens our eyes.

The prostitute Rahab is in the genealogy of Jesus Christ. Moses killed an Egyptian in a fit of rage then led the Hebrews to the Promised Land. David seduced Bathsheba, had her husband Uriah, one of David’s Mighty Men, killed, and then conceived Solomon with her. Solomon built the temple. 

God redeems prostitutes, murderers, and adulterers. His power is most evident when he restores those people with the most rotten souls. Every one of us is “the worst of sinners,” and every one of us has hope. 

God can turn pedophiles, rapists, and cannibals into saints. He loves pornographers, pimps, and you.

Accepting Jesus is a lifelong confession of our sins, our bloody hands and our need of a sacrificial lamb and a joyful surrender to God’s ineffable love, the power of the Holy Spirit, and the sweet grace of an empty tomb.

Hallelujah.

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You can change

March 31, 2009

You can change.

You are not simply a product of your past or environment, bound with invisible chains to your sins, failures, and family secrets.

Grace means transformation. Grace is real. Grace is true.

The fire of the Holy Spirit can sweep through your life and burn up all the garbage. You can live in freedom. You can taste purity and peace.

What you treat as unbreakable bonds are cobwebs to the risen Christ.

You can change. He can make you holy—washed white and entirely new.

Start asking, and he will come to your desire for him like a moth to a candle.

Deepen no darkness

March 25, 2009

Abba,

Give me strength and courage. Make me an oak and a lion.

Give me the Spirit of Christ, that I may receive wounds without giving them, that I may be a vessel of healing even to my enemies—those who embarrass, humiliate and betray me, those who snatch away my peace, those who erode my confidence, and those who obscure my joy.

Help me to relinquish the expectation that others should meet my expectations. 

Help me to listen well, with one ear to the heart of each person I am with and one to Yours. Help me to keep honest silence. Take my fears into your warm hands so that I can release my brothers and sisters from any obligation to calm my fears. Make my confusion fruitful. Create in me a clean heart, that I may be a safe place for others to air their own confusion, fears, and grievances.

Let me force no confessions, create no dissonance, and deepen no darkness.

Amen.

Reconciliation

March 21, 2009

I once thought of reconciliation the same way I thought of a broken bone healing.

My eighth grade year, I played cornerback, and my job on a sweep was to “scrape the alley” to the right of the tight end, get one step ahead of the blocker, and make the tackle. During practice one day, the running back was trying to block me, and he stepped on my left leg.

Pop!

I found out later that my tibia and fibula had snapped about ten inches above my ankle. Over the next twelve weeks, casts of different sizes, colors, and materials came and went. When the last one finally came off, a knot had formed over the break. “Overcalcification,” the nurse explained. “As the bone knit itself back together, it overcompensated.” She assured me that over time my body would absorb the extra calcium, the knot would disappear, and my leg should be even stronger than before.

I thought that relationships should heal the same way—stronger than before. After both parties come together with broken hearts, take responsibility for the hurts they inflicted, and ask forgiveness of one another, trust fills the rift, and the sweetness, intimacy, and laughter return. Agility and grace return. That relationship no longer walks with a limp.

This depth of wholistic, joy-infused healing certainly does occur in some relationships. I have experienced it. I thought that it was the highest expression of faithfulness and obedience, and thus pursued it with the same fervency that I tried to muster in every aspect of my life. After all, Jesus calls us to be peacemakers. Making peace means becoming a reconciling people. Reconciliation is what we do. I expected all my injured relationships to be stronger than before.

However, what happens when the other person never apologizes? Never admits fault? Denies any wrongdoing and steamrolls one’s vulnerability?

What happens if the person shows no interest in reconciliation and multiplies the offense with more insensitivity and selfishness?

We cannot wait to forgive and move forward into the fullness of life in Christ until the people who hurt us have asked for forgiveness. Sometimes, reconciliation comes with no sweet reunion or tears of relief and gratitude mingled with the other person’s. Sometimes, reconciliation is being cordial, feeling a sincere desire for the other person’s well-being and the relinquishment of our own bitterness and resentment.

Certain relationships never return to us. They walk with a limp out of our lives. God calls us to acknowledge our part in the wounding and breaking and to confess to Him, and if possible, the other person, our sins against that person. He never says, “There’s something wrong with you and your faith if you’re not able to fix every relationship.”

What a relief that He calls me to participate in reconciliation as far as I have the power to do so. He knows I have no power to suck the venom from another person’s heart. 

Praise God for the toppling of impossible standards and the graceful letting go of broken relationships.

I am his child, not his handyman.

an end to hurting

March 15, 2009

I am convinced that few people reject Christ after an arduous journey in search of truth.

Few people climb mountains of books, navigate oceans of conversation, endure storms of dogma, doctrine, and opinion. Few people put scripture, spiritual disciplines, and worshipping communities through the strainer of logic and meditation, lived experience and openhearted inquiry.

I am also convinced that most people who actually meet Jesus fall in love with him.

What happens to everybody else?

They get hurt. Rejecting Jesus has very little to do with dimissing Jesus as a lunatic and the Way he preached about as a fable created by a ragtag band of disappointed followers. Rejecting Jesus has everything to do with pain.

Plenty of folks will bring up genocide in the Old Testament, or the death of a child from a birth defect, or the historical inaccuracies, multiple authors, or discrepancies among biblical manuscripts.

You might meet a nonbeliever troubled by the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, or the Salem Witch trials. He may ask, What about sex scandals in the Catholic priesthood or the greed of televangelists? What about hypocrisy and every injustice and atrocity carried out in the name of God?

If God loves us, why do we suffer?

Why does your God allow rape, molestation, slavery, starvation, disease, war, and avarice?

If you listen carefully when someone is building a case for God’s absence or nonexistence, you will hear him or her describe evil – human depravity.

Each person will say in her own way, “The world is not as it should be.”

Underneath all the arguments and counterpoints, you will discover other people’s pain. People want to know whether or not God cares about human suffering. They have been wounded by pastors and preachers, lovers and strangers, who claimed to carry the message of the gospel. They never meet Jesus because they must push through so many broken relationships to find him.

If you think you have something to share with nonbelievers, you first ask about their pain. You must then walk with them to Jesus. They are tired of apologetics. They want your heart and they want his. They want to believe there is an end to hurting.

Ebenezers and Deserts

March 14, 2009

I was a month into my first semester at Lipscomb University.

After sleeping in, I walked over to the Student Center to check my mailbox. Through the glass on the rectangular brass door I could see the card. I already knew what this card meant: my new satchel from L.L. Bean had arrived. It was going to be a good day.

The person behind the desk in the small office handed me my package. I opened right there, threw away the mailer and bubble wrap, and walked upstairs. No one was around. Strange. Uncle Dave’s and the coffeeshop and the bookstore should be humming with activity. Where was everybody?

My grandmother, who was working in the bookstore back then, must have seen me walk by because she caught up to me while I was standing underneath the portico looking out on Bison Square and wondering why it was deserted.

“Did you hear the news?” She touched my shoulder then wrapped her arm around my waist. I put my arm around her shoulders. This is the way we’ve stood every since I grew taller than her.

“No. What news?” Now I felt my stomach turn over with the first hint of anxiousness.

“Some people flew planes into the twin towers and the World Trade Center.”

My mind failed to wrap around this information. She had to repeat herself and explain that the videos were on every news channel. Where had I been?

What alarmed me more than anything else is that after she shared this news—events that changed our world and the very fabric of our lives forever—I felt nothing. No fear. No sadness. No warm rush of compassion. I was devoid of emotion. She may as well have told me that the cafeteria was serving corndogs. Hundreds and thousands of people had just died and more would die to save the survivors, but I found no response in my heart but a curious emptiness.

This apathy disturbed me. I wondered what had happened to harden my heart, and that day, I began praying a prayer that I continue to give to the Lord:

“Let my heart be pierced with other people’s suffering. Soften me, open me, to their pain and fear, their insecurity and pressing need to be loved even while their lives are wastelands. Give me the strength to roll up my sleeves and work alongside you to turn the rubble into temples, ebenezers, altars of praise. When their hearts and faith are scorched, may you bring them hope through me.”

I have a bad habit of praying prayers before I fully understand their ramifications. The same thing happened two years later when my friend Taylor and I decided to pray for humility. He prayed for my humility, and I prayed for his. We knew enough about how sanctification works to know that brokenness leads to humility, and neither one of us could pray for brokenness with sincerity. God answers such prayers, I guess because they align with His Perfect Will for our lives.

He desires that we walk with one another through the valleys of dead bones, through the dark nights of our souls. He has certainly answered that prayer from my freshman year of college by resensitizing me to a groaning world full of hurting people. I struggle not to feel overwhelmed by such deep need. We are all so needy. Everyone I know is starving for love, and here God offers his love as a free gift and a way of life that leads to peace and wholeness—to shalom—and we pluck out our own eyes even as we pluck out the eyes of others.

O! I am filled with such a longing to be in the temple of God, ringing His praises off the flagstones, and O! I am eager for the return of Christ when his kingdom will come in its fullness and he will use the corner of his white robe to wipe away every tear.

Sometimes, I just don’t know what to do with myself because I feel like what I have to offer is never enough, and I can never cry enough tears to answer the thirst of every parched soul. God answered my prayer, and perhaps the pendulum has swung to the opposite extreme, and I am now too sentimental, too tender-hearted. I live in a new kingdom, and I don’t feel cut out for life as an alien in the old kingdom. 

Oh, Lord, thy kingdom come…Please let thy kingdom come. Before we all perish. Before fear, blindness, and pride, before the world we have created consumes us all. Give us water to transform every desert.

Please do something right now. We have nowhere else to turn.

Bratislava

March 7, 2009

I wanted to spend the last of my Slovakian korunas before we left Bratislava, so I bought some pipe tobacco I didn’t want. Who knew when I’d be back. We found a restaurant called the Blue Moon Café and ate dinner outside underneath a striped awning. Dusk fell on the street. Still fresh to new to the art of being respectful in other culture, we were too loud and attracted attention. People looked right through us as though pretending we didn’t exist, or they stared openly with smugness or disdain. We were noisy primates at the zoo, rattling our cages. Their unsmiling mouths and sharp eyes communicated no curiosity. I guess they thought that they already knew all about us—ugly Americans. We carried cameras. We ordered too much food. We spent money just to get rid of it.

We rarely encountered open hostility. Most of the time, we could slide through the open spaces without feeling eyes on us, without feeling self-conscious. I got the feeling that to the Viennese, the Parisians, and the Romans American tourists, especially college students, are a necessary evil, helping the economy while spoiling the local flavor.  

We were young and green, as far as traveling graciously and inconspicuously goes, and we wanted to enjoy ourselves, to savor our Wiener Schnitzel and knödel, to smell the zinnias in Salzburg and the roses at Schönbrunn.

However, while I was developing an appreciation for tapas in Madrid and Bernini’s sculptures at the Galleria Borghese in Rome, I was also developing a taste for anonymity. If Herr Ober wanted to pretend that this flock of caffeinated college students abroad had not just seated themselves and ordered cheese pizzas and tap water, then we could pretend his long absences were a very professional austerity and respect for our privacy. Being ignored is a sort of freedom. Even more, what if after awhile we just blended in? What if we spoke in German?

We finished dinner at the Blue Moon Café, and I walked with Josh Elmore and Brandon Lokey back to the train station. People were waiting for their buses in the sheltered stops. His back to the road, a homeless man had pulled himself into the fetal position to fit on the bench. His pants had come down, and his dirty butt crack frowned at us.

A few benches closer to the station, a woman sat with her knees far apart bracing herself with her arms on the bench. She had a look of concentration fixed on her face, but she was gazing at nothing. Another moment, a few more steps, and I understood why. I heard a sound that did not fit in—water hitting a hard surface. The woman was urinating—in public, in plain view.

She sticks in my mind like a splinter. I cannot say I thought much about it then. I’ve seen plenty of homeless men relieving themselves behind dumpsters, in parking garages, and against the nearest wall. So, we passed by the woman, made sure not to stare, and found the bus that took us to the other train station across town where we could catch a late train back to Vienna. I was happy to hear German again.

I did journal about that woman later:

Another, a woman, fastened her eyes somewhere far away until they glazed. She sat with her hands propped on either side as if she would fall without the support. Her rigid form would not have attracted our attention had she not been urinating. Liquid splashed to the ground through the slats in the bench, spreading a dark puddle on the concrete. She wore a sweater and skirt. My heart sought to help her somehow, but I could not, for I was intimidated by something I had never witnessed and never wanted to witness again.

We told the story to the other students, and they, of course, responded with disgust. I cannot remember where we were, if we were eating dinner or walking and smoking pipes or having dessert in a room with centuries-old frescoes and vaulted ceilings. We probably finished our coffee and torte at Hotel Sacher or Hotel Imperial and went outside to breathe the magic of the opera house, Jugendstil architecture, and Stephansdom. Pistachio gelato and Gustav Klimt, Red Bull and Kinderpunsch, shopping at the Rathaus Christmas market—we were too busy making memories.

Now, I wonder where the woman slept the night we told our story about her.

I was alive. I was awakening to see my childlike curiosity fallen asleep beside me. I nudged it awake, and together, with my friends and their curiosities, we rode the Eurail across our years of textbooks, through the history of our collective way of thinking. After sitting through two years of Latin in high school, I was standing three and a half years later in front of the Colosseum. Outside, vendors hawked beaded skull caps and postcards, and inside, tourists stroked the feral cats lounging in the Italian sun. I thought of tigers and mock naval battles and Christian martyrs. A spring semester of art history my freshman year of college then four months later, I saw, on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the sliver of atmosphere between Adam’s finger and God’s. God’s breath jumped the lacuna and gave life to us all. The breath of life.

I was thinking recently about a phrase I have heard more times than I can remember, especially in prayers: the less fortunate. Please, God, be with the less fortunate. The least of these. “Please, God, be with those who have less fortune or no fortune.”

God gives and He takes away, but to some does He even give? “I need to refill the honeypot of blessings,” he says to the unborn soul, “but I’ve got to enflesh you before I can go out back. Too bad. Sorry. You were at the wrong place at the wrong time.” And these are the people, these children of God, who end up wetting themselves on a bench in Bratislava. They get the breath of life, but they do not get good fortune. The lucky souls hurry past to their hot meals and warm beds, to their glorious memories still so new that they cannot shake them or the colors will run.

Good thing I bought the Old Dublin pipe tobacco and Danneman Sweets. Did I really need the venison kebabs, rice pilaf, and orange Fanta I ate for lunch? The caviar and sour cream on crepes for an appetizer? The beef filet in herb butter with potatoes, ketchup, and fried champignons for dinner? A Coke? And for dessert blackberry jam wrapped in crepes and drizzled with blackberry syrup and topped with whipped cream?

Who is responsible for the man curled up on the park bench? Me or God? What about the woman urinating on herself in public?

I cannot shake the image out of my mind. I will never see her again, but I will see someone like her. I will do something about it this time. I think God gave himself to us in Christ so that we can give ourselves to the least of these.