Nailed It!

nail2M

While paging through an old notebook some time ago, in the margin of some meeting notes, I found a sketch of a nail. Yes, a nail.

The meeting was April 6, 2009. I don’t remember what the meeting was about, and probably nothing else on that page will ever mean anything to me again. But the nail does.

Because on Palm Sunday 2009 (which happened to be April 5), I listened to a message on forgiveness, and at the end the speaker handed out small nails as a reminder of the forgiveness we’ve all received and the forgiveness we should offer in turn.

For many years I carried one of those nails in my pocket regularly (some days I still do).

The man who delivered that message that day was pastoring a church we visited. My family and I didn’t stay there – it was over twenty miles away and we opted for somewhere closer to home. But we would be back.

It’s funny how we cross paths with certain people along our journey, never suspecting the major role that person will play in our lives someday.

This man had no idea the lasting impact this particular sermon made on my life. He had never met or even seen me before, and considering there were a thousand plus people in attendance that day I doubt he noticed me even then.

I had no idea that three years and one month later I would be in his church again…this time for counseling after a personal crisis would drive me into a spiritual wilderness.

He had no idea that his ministry would be the oasis in that wilderness that was exactly what I needed.

Neither of us had any idea that we would form a friendship, that we and our wives would see one another on a regular basis, or that I would one day consider him one of my most valued personal mentors.

But God knew all of that.

On that day in 2009 as I was doodling in the margin of my notepad, God had already mapped all this out. The meandering path I was about to take would lead right back to the same place I had been the day before, to see the man I had just heard speak.

These are the orchestrations of life that convince me there has to be a God who not only cares but is fully engaged in our lives. Nothing else can explain it.

And it makes me wonder…

…who did Saul of Tarsus see in the crowd that day at the stoning of Stephen who he would one day collaborate with for the furtherance of the gospel?

…what fellow wanderer would Joshua share a campfire with in the Sinai desert that would later become one of his loyal supporters or trusted advisers?

…what skeptic could Peter or John have had a run-in with who would eventually become a champion of the early church?

…which of King Saul’s soldiers may David have spied when he was hiding in caves who would someday serve in his own army?

…who is on the fringes of your life right now that will someday come back around to be a key person in your future (or vice versa)?

Predictability isn’t always God’s modus operandi, that’s for sure. But one thing is certain – He’s always working to bring things together in the most fantastic ways.

And when it happens, and we look back and see it, we can only marvel and say “Wow, God…you nailed it!”

Advertisements

Three Things to Consider While You Wait

Household 791Did you ever wonder about the years between the time the prodigal son took off with his inheritance and the time he returned?

We have a pretty good idea of what happened in the son’s life during that time, but virtually no insight into the father’s.

First, I wonder how hard it was for him to let go in the first place. How it must have torn his heart to hear his son say “I don’t want to have anything to do with you. I’ll just take my money and move on.” What emotions did he grapple with? Confusion? Anger? Feeling like a failure? Desperation? Guilt? Resignation? All of the above?

And what went through his head while the boy was away? We don’t know how long it was, but we know it was probably years. Partying away a small fortune, living through a famine, hitting rock bottom, and entering the workforce in the most demeaning job imaginable – all of that doesn’t happen overnight.

So what about dad during this time?

Did he yearn to go out searching for him? Did he think about sending a search party or hiring a private eye? If the story were pulled into the modern age, would he try to turn on the GPS on the boy’s phone, or Google his name to see if he turned up in the news? Would he have constantly fight the urge to text or email him?

It had to be grueling, just living with the silence, not hearing any news. Thinking about the old times, choking back emotions when memories arose. Maybe wishing he had done some things differently – spent more time with him, worked less, had more patience. Maybe he made some serious mistakes that he wished he could take back, or at least have a chance to explain. Maybe he looked back on the good times and felt a twinge of hurt and anger that his son would dismiss all that good and fly from the nest.

Of course, this is all speculation. We don’t know what went on at the home-front while the prodigal was ruining his life. But some of us can draw from personal experience, and feel like we have a pretty good idea.

Which leads to my point (yes, I have one).

Maybe there’s another lesson in this parable besides the return of the prodigal. We must not lose sight of that key lesson – that just like the prodigal, we can always return home, find unconditional acceptance, and be embraced by our Heavenly Father.

But maybe for some of us there’s also the lesson of what to do if we find ourselves in the shoes of the heartbroken father.

Some of you may be there right now.  If so, here are three thoughts about the wait that may help.

First: Life goes on. We can’t allow the pain of that damaged relationship to damage the rest of the relationships in our lives. Others still need us, and we have responsibilities to them. The hurt is real, and we can’t ignore it. But to dwell on it at the expense of other, intact relationships is wrong. Take the pain to God. Find counsel if necessary (there’s no shame in getting counseling – don’t get caught by that lie). But keep loving those that are still in your life. As far as we know, the father still attended to his farm and the rest of his family in his youngest son’s absence.

Second: God is in control. No matter how bleak things seem, God never relinquishes control, and He never drops the ball. Whatever is happening, He is there. He’s not surprised, He’s not outmaneuvered, He’s not stumped. We don’t know how long the wait was, but we know this: the father was still waiting and watching expectantly right up until his son appeared on the horizon.

Third: Do what you can, and let God do what He will. You can’t control this. Relinquish the urge to try. If an opportunity comes to let them know you’re still thinking of them, take it. But trust that the love you showed them while you were together will stay with them, and that God will remind them that they can always come home. The father didn’t pursue the prodigal, but somehow the son still knew that he could return, and would find some sort of welcome (even if it was just a job as a farmhand).

And one other thing…

Keep your running shoes on so you can dash out to meet them when they return!

Tough Love

Old West 253“If anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.” – Galatians 6:1 (ESV)

There are times when tough love is necessary. When the person is outright refusing to see the cliff they are approaching, or they are blatantly disregarding harm they are bringing to others and have ignored repeated warnings.

At other times, tough love is mostly counter-productive.

For the person who hasn’t really realized the gravity of their choices, tough love could merely trigger defensiveness, denial, or counter-attack. Once the walls go up or their sword is unsheathed in response, they are not likely to think very rationally.

For the person who is trying to do the right thing, tough love could cause them to recoil in shock and make vows to not be honest anymore because it only brings judgment, accusations and pain. If trying to bring their struggles or mistakes into the light only results in harsh responses, they’ll slam the lid back shut and nail it closed more securely than before.

In either case, what has been accomplished is the opposite of the stated goal.

We sometimes have this tendency to want to thump our chests and proclaim the necessity for tough love. Somehow it makes us more of a courageous Christian if we can say “I told them exactly what they needed to hear and I didn’t hold anything back.  I know it hurt, but it needed to be done!”

Actually, the truth is, it probably was exactly NOT what they needed to hear. And NOT what needed to be done.

Sure, we may feel good about our bold uncompromising grit in “standing up for what is right and telling so-and-so a thing or two.” We may feel an extra swagger in our step, like the Dirty Harry of Christian morality, bravely keeping our churches free from riffraff (“Do you feel lucky, punk?”).

But this is exactly what Paul was referring to when he said “keep watch on yourself.” It’s easy to fall into the harsh attitudes of religiosity and pride. And no matter how many times we lament outwardly “I hated to have to do that” it doesn’t change the pridefulness that’s under the surface.

The truth is, probably what the person really needs to hear is that they have someone who will stand with them and hold them up.

They need to hear that someone is there who will be brutally honest with them when necessary, but first and foremost will be there to love and encourage them. And when brutal honesty is called for, it will be with a heart of compassion and sensitivity, not a broken display of hubris disguised as fearless candor.

What they need to hear is that someone is there for them who will pull out the ‘tough love’ only when it is absolutely necessary, and then will only do it gently and prayerfully…and *always* with more ‘love’ than ‘tough’.

Because in the end, most situations don’t need a Detective Harry Callahan.

They need Jesus.

Proper Care of the Wounded

Civil War 014This life is lived on a battlefield. And as with any physical battlefield, our spiritual battlefield includes punches and counter-punches, strategy and happenstance, really solid decisions and really lousy decisions.

And the result of the lousy decisions, the unexpected counter-punches, or the happenstance (happenstance from our perspective mind you, because nothing surprises God), is often wounding. Wounding that affects both good warriors and bad warriors. Wounding that is very often self-inflicted.

As part of the body of Christ, we have an obligation to care for these wounded and do everything we can to get them to safety and help them heal.

No warrior deserves to be left to bleed out on the spiritual battlefield.

Yet so often, that’s exactly what we do.

We consider their sin too atrocious, or their struggle too embarrassing to be associated with, or their spiritual/emotional condition too untouchable.

And so we act like the priest and the Levite who turned a blind eye to the dying man, instead of the Samaritan who stopped to lend aid (see Luke 10:30-35).

And that’s at best.

At worst, we kick them while they’re down, wag our heads in disgust, and go off to speculate about them and their brokenness in the comfy circles of the mask-wearing gossips. You know, those circles where the real goal is to keep the focus on the one whose mask has slipped so as to avoid anyone noticing what is behind our own mask.

That’s not the way Jesus’ church is supposed to act.

How many times did Jesus Himself kick someone who was down? Never. If it can be said that He kicked anyone, it was the ones who were standing upright in a spirit of arrogance and pride (which incidentally were the ones who were consistently kicking or neglecting the wounded).

Let’s take a page from His playbook.

He treated the adulterous with love and compassion – why can’t we do the same with the sexually broken?

He embraced the tax cheats and extortionists and inspired them to make positive change – why can’t we do likewise for those caught in the downward spirals of substance abuse?

He took a few hot-headed sailors (who probably had the demeanor and vocabularies to match) and empowered them to change the world – why can’t we show grace to those in our midst who might not fit our idea of ‘acceptable church people’?

This isn’t to say everything is okay. Sexual brokenness, substance abuse, greed, abusive tempers, etc. do not allow anyone to reach their full potential. And there is so much damage done to innocent people when such things go unchecked. Cycles of brokenness have to be addressed and personal change (sometimes drastic personal change) must be pursued.

But if a warrior is lying wounded in a pool of his or her own blood, and is desiring restoration and wholeness…neither criticism nor desertion are what they need.

Love them like Jesus. Bind their wounds. Stay at their side. And see what happens.

Chances are, you’ll witness a miraculously changed life.

Hate Properly Placed

Signs 51That title caught your attention, didn’t it?

Yes, it’s what I meant to type.

It wasn’t auto-correct changing a misspelling to the wrong word…though I have certainly cursed the auto-correct feature many times for doing just that.

It isn’t some private rant mistakenly posted to my blog…I keep my private rants in pen-and-ink so that they’re easier to control (how’s that for transparency?).

And nobody hacked my website and posted it in an attempt to embarrass me…I am perfectly capable of embarrassing myself without any help.

No, the intended topic today really is Hate Properly Placed.

First, there are circumstances where hate is proper. But before running with that statement, let’s go a little deeper.

Humans – and particularly Christian humans – can be very adept at displaying hate, anger and other negative emotions. We justify it in various ways. We tag the word ‘righteous’ onto it as if that word will somehow make whatever we are thinking, saying or doing pure and holy. We enumerate why the target of our judgment deserves it and why everyone else should hate them as well. We defend our actions and reactions by claiming we are defending our loved ones, or innocents, or baby seals, or even God.

But here’s what I know: any time our hatred, anger or other negative emotion is aimed at a person, it is wrong.

It doesn’t matter how good the reason is.  It doesn’t matter how justified I feel. It doesn’t matter how many people agree with me or cheer for me or stand on their desks and recite Walt Whitman poetry (who can name that movie reference?).

It is never okay in God’s eyes to hate a human being. We can be upset, irate, or angry about what they are doing. We can hate the things they stand for or the activities they support. But when the hate is directed toward the person, it has crossed the line.

Many of us have heard the term “Hate the sin, love the sinner.” It’s become something of a cliché in the church, but it’s the best rule of thumb by which to check our emotions. It’s what God teaches us. It’s what Jesus modeled for us.

Think about it. When people see a need to justify their anger or hate, what is their go-to bible story? Jesus chasing out the money changers (Matt 21:12-13, Mark 11:15-17, Luke 19:45-46, John 2:14-16). “Even Jesus got angry,” they will say, as they flip pages to one of those passages in a huff.

But notice one thing about this story…Jesus does not get angry with the people, but with what they are doing! He overturns the furniture, He dumps their wares and upends their cash boxes, He even makes a whip and runs them out of the courtyard. But all the while His criticism is directed at what they are doing, not who they are.

Or look at all the places where He contends with the religious leaders (which incidentally are the only ones that He ever really gets harsh with – if Jesus were in some of our churches today, He wouldn’t get nearly as upset with the abortion doctors or the gay rights activists or the drug addicts as He would with the people so arrogantly condemning them).

Anyway, back to Jesus and the religious leaders: He calls them hypocrites, blind leaders of the blind, etc. But He always specifically tells them what the issue is…because His indignation is leveled against their actions and their attitudes, not their persons.

When we aim the hate at the person, we are shackling ourselves in chains that will hold us much tighter than they will ever hold the subject of our hatred. Because, in that case, what if that person changes? Answer: Our hate will remain – in fact, we’ll probably look for other reasons to hate them. Essentially, we develop the attitude portrayed in the sign pictured above – shoot the trespassers, and if they survive (i.e., try to make positive change), shoot them again!

Jesus could love and accept Pharisees like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea and Saul of Tarsus because he didn’t hate them for being Pharisees, He hated the religiosity and the judgmental attitudes that Pharisaism represented.

Does that make sense?  I hope so.  Because I have one more thing to cover. I know I’m already running longer than normal, but bear with me as I work out this last very important piece.

Our hate should never be directed toward a person.

You are a person (profound, I know).

So guess what that means?

It means that no matter how ugly you think you are inside, no matter what mistakes you’ve made or how you’ve blown it, no matter who has broken your boundaries or how much you are convinced you are somehow responsible for them doing so, no matter what broken overgrown pothole-covered trail you have traveled to get where you stand today – you have no right to hate or be angry at you!

You can hate the bad things you have done (that’s part of repentance). You can be angry about the poor choices you’ve made (and honestly, you should). You can be upset about the fact you hurt people (again, as you should).

But never, never, never, ever turn that hatred and anger on yourself personally. It’s counter-productive, it’s self-defeating, and it’s a ploy of the Enemy to keep you in chains!

So the next time you feel that hate welling up inside of you, check it.  First, of course, make sure it’s proper. Then, make sure your sights are directed down-range at the offense, and not at the guy standing next to you on the firing line or at yourself.

When you get that right, you’ll realize you’re in a much better position to experience – and show – the love of God.

The Perils of Time Travel

Household 020

Who doesn’t have some point in the past they wish to go back to?

To make a different decision, right some wrong, take a different path, avoid a situation where you were hurt, or avoid hurting someone else. The reasons to want to change the event can seem as numerous as the moments that have passed since the event took place.

We all have at least one moment in time like that.  I personally have a whole laundry list.

But God, in His divine wisdom, doesn’t allow us to have do-overs, or even a momentary time-jump to make minor adjustments.

Why?

Here are my thoughts:

He knows that we are likely to just screw up all over again.  Maybe when we got there we would decide that we didn’t want to change things after all. Or we might get caught up in the moment and make the same choice – or a worse one.

How many times have we said “I’ll never do that again” and then when the opportunity came to “do that” we fell right into it? What makes us think that “I wouldn’t do that again” would hold up if we went back in time?

Yes, you can say you’ve seen years of consequences. You’d know better than to make the same mistake again. But often when we make a repeat mistake in real time, we’ve seen the consequences it brought last time we did it. Yet in the moment we think that doing it again will yield a different result…or, we just don’t think, period.

Real-time repeat-mistake-maker, meet time-traveling repeat-mistake-maker.

I am convinced that even with perfect knowledge – knowing what we know today while being in the moment yesterday – we would still be vulnerable to making the same mistakes.

He knows we would try to fix it in our way. We are human, with human reasoning, and human emotions.  How do we know that the way we would change that one moment would make everything better?  Even assuming we can know for sure the exact moment to change to make things different (a big assumption), how do we know that righting one wrong wouldn’t lead to wronging three rights in the process?

Or how do we know that instead of doing the right thing, we wouldn’t just do the wrong thing differently to try to avoid the aftereffects? In our humanness, we are just as likely to try to do the wrong thing again, but in such a way so as to outmaneuver the consequences. Which, of course, would just lead to different consequences.

—–

None of this is profound, is it? We’ve seen enough sci-fi movies to know that when you time travel, you don’t interfere with history. Yet we still would like to try. We think, “Oh no, it would be different if *I* could go back in time. I’d be able to make all the right changes and the result would be a much better life for all.”  Guess what – you wouldn’t, and it wouldn’t.

So where does that leave us? I’m out of time and space (no pun intended) to go any further right now. So I’ll leave that for next time. Until then, leave some comments with your own thoughts below.

Building On Top of the Rubble

Image

 

I want to know a song can rise,
From the ashes of a broken life,
And all that’s dead inside can be reborn.
                                      — Worn, Tenth Avenue North

God is not only a master builder, but also a master re-builder.

When our own poor choices and bad judgments cause what He has built to crumble, and our lives and testimonies become a big pile of ashes, He is not finished with us.

He begins to rebuild. And He always builds on top of the rubble. He doesn’t move on to another building site and leave us to lie in pieces. He builds on the site of the disaster and makes us bigger and better and stronger and more mature than we ever were before.

Two years ago, when my own poor choices and bad judgments caught up with me, causing the loss of friends, loss of respect even with those who remained at my side, and the severance of family relationships that were so very dear to me, I first heard the song Worn by Tenth Avenue North. The entire chorus goes like this:

“Let me see redemption win,
Let me know the struggle ends,
That You can mend a heart that’s frail and torn,
I want to know a song can rise,
From the ashes of a broken life,
And all that’s dead inside can be reborn.”

I can remember hearing those lyrics and lifting them up as my own plea with every ounce of my being – pleading desperately with God that the words could be true.

Today, two years later, I hear those words and I smile, because that prayer has become a praise. Because now I know that redemption does win, that struggles do end, that frail and torn hearts can be mended. I know that songs do rise from the ashes and dead things are reborn.

None of these realities are perfect or complete. There are still relationships that haven’t recovered, and maybe never will. There is still hurt in the lives of loved ones caused by the choices I made. There are still moments of regret and guilt and shame over my bad decisions. And there are still weaknesses and the realization that old struggles can come back – this life is lived on a battlefield.

But God never promised to rebuild us perfectly in this life. There are still traces of the rubble around the construction site. And there is always a new phase of the building project on the horizon. That’s called growth, or in Christian parlance, sanctification. It is a process, not an artifact.

Maybe the place where you are now is in the midst of the rubble, with dust flying and brick and mortar crushing down and the occasional spark bursting from a severed power line. If that’s the case, take heart, trust Him, and just press through today. He’s not done with you yet.

No matter what you did, or what was done to you, He will rebuild, and you will rise again.