I’ll call him Roland. That’s not his real name but I’ve chosen a pseudonym to protect him as well as many others who wanted to kill him when he was a kid. Not literally mind you. But through the years there were tidal waves of frustration and ‘end of the ropeness’ with Roland that got you to the ‘we’re through’ point in record, if not light-speed time. Maybe tidal wave isn’t accurate. Tsunami might be more descriptive.
Roland had a family who loved him, as well as a church. Yet even as a little boy he possessed a common allegiance to rebellious behavior. Whether in school, youth group or in facing the kindest of boundaries, this boy was the opposite pole to whatever authority he encountered. He was suspended by the thinnest of lifelines and we all felt it would be only a matter of time until that connection broke.
Yet through the hardest of years we continued to love him. As an adolescent who lived in the zip code of disappointment and chaos, we refused the choice of not loving. And it was difficult at times to do that. But it was an unrelenting resolve.
Today I met with Roland. Passing through town he wanted to catch up…and thank me for being a part of a much larger community that never stopped loving him. He’s now married and working in a ministry that finds God placing him in the path of other Rolands whose desperate need for love resonates with familiar tones.
Brendon Lane writes, “Divine love is incessantly restless until it turns all woundedness into health, all deformity into beauty and all embarrassment into laughter.” It’s a love that doesn’t melt you but melts who you are not. It’s a love that sees beyond the moment, the circumstances and the costs and tenaciously refuses to stop. It’s a love that comes from God.
He is the one who adores us that we might adore His creation. That adoration is surprisingly bigger than what you’ve ever been told and far bigger than you could ever imagine. How much greater is the God we have than the one we think we have. As bearers of that tender love, may we be seized by the enormous love of the Father that brings life and transformation into the perceived futility and hopelessness of the world.
Last night my friend Jim said, “I hate it when December 25th falls on a Sunday. It messes up my whole Christmas.” When I asked why that was the case, he replied, “well I can’t come to church that day. By the time we’re through with presents and eating there’s not enough time.” “Well, come to the Saturday night service,” I said. “Naw,” sighed Jim. “It’s just not the same.”
Holidays can be exhausting. The level of stress slams full steam into our illusions of controlling the season. We tell ourselves that we’re going to get ahead of Christmas this year. Cards written and sent, trees up and decorated, obligatory parties and travel schedules. Somehow we get distracted by the thousand things that have to get done and lose sight of the One thing that’s already complete. It’s the great but predictable danger when Holy days become holidays.
Really it doesn’t matter how busy you are over these weeks and days, you won’t be able to ignore the yearning that will emerge from your soul again this Christmas. This is a yearning for the hope, peace, joy, and love that comes in the stillness and waiting for the birth of Christ. We try to numb those old yearnings with our default mode of busyness and hurry.
Yet, from the beginning we’ve all been hoping that our lives are filled with sacred mystery that only Christ can offer. We’ve been hoping that there is more than we see, that life matters and makes a difference, and that God isn’t done with us. That’s the offer of the Incarnation. The worship of the newborn child of Bethlehem provides that sweet and eternal gift. It’s designed to help us see for ourselves. Don’t confuse Holy days with holidays. Set aside all coping devices, recover the glorious hopes deep within you and allow the familiar story to tell the story of your life this year.
“The Lord is near.”(Philippians 2:5) He is not far off, but near to you, when you can see him and when you cannot. That’s our only hope. When you are thinking about something that has you churning with anxiety that is our only hope.
The day after an election finds people with mixed reactions. Disappointment. Elation. Shock. Relief. Numbness. Joy. Disbelief. Satisfaction. It’s an anxious time. Divisions deepen within our country. Rhetoric amps up as we look for someone, anyone to blame. There is a lot of fear as well as fear mongering. We easily absorb the uneasiness and distress. We personalize it and take it with us like a form of identification which periodically reappears as dread and harasses us without end. This is why we also have to absorb the holy words of Scriptures that cast out fear – “The Lord is near to you.”
One of the most common ways anxiety reveals itself is through conflict. We try to convince the other side of our position, often with emotion or blame. Arguments ensue, often feelings of hate arise and we inevitably end up moving further away from one another. Another divide.
Later in that same book, Paul tells Christ followers “Let your gentleness be known to everyone” (Philippians 4:5). Gentleness doesn’t mean weakness; to the contrary, only the strong can be gentle. The gentle choose to be kind, compassionate, and generous precisely because they are so confident in their strength that they don’t have to prove it. So how do we find such confidence? Only through the strength of the Lord who is near. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we were known for our gentleness? Sadly, that’s not our reputation. But it can be, whenever you are ready to give up fear and anxiety.
And to experience that, we have to believe the Word: “Do not worry about anything, but in everything, pray.” (Philippians 4:6) Prayer is where we consciously lay our fear and worry before the Lord. And when we pick them back up, in prayer we lay them down again. And the promise is: “The peace of God will guard your hearts and minds.” This means that the peace of God stands like a watchman, guarding your heart against anxiety. But this peace is a grace, given through prayer. You don’t think or argue your way into it, and you don’t find it from an upturn in the Dow or election results. It’s found only in the outstretched arms of the Lord, who is near. That’s how we do the next day, and every day after.
All of us go through dry seasons. I’m in the midst of one right now. Sometimes they sneak up on you unaware. On other occasions their fury hits you like a high-speed crash. Regardless of our denial that we would ever find ourselves in those dark arid times, they will come—or have come—or are on their way.
Regardless of ‘what is going on’ during that season, our reunion with normalcy always comes back to a right view of God and of ourselves in kinship with Him. Even if the difficulty and darkness is unrelenting
Hope begins in the dark. Grace is always found in the Light. Fear is always overcome by the One who replaces chaos with peace. No one is argued out of their fears. They’re only loved out of them. When a child cries out in the dark, a mother doesn’t stand in the door rationally explaining that there are no goblins. No, she rushes to the bed of the child and embraces them until the fears go away. That’s a wonderful image of what the coming of Christ was, and is all about – God rushing into the darkness to love the fear out of us.
And, O yes, it’s not about you. It’s all about God in His love holding us well through those long empty days. You and I don’t have the cred or resources for that. Not only are you completely incapable of making God love you more, you are equally incapable of making him love you less. He sees you as you are. Loves you as you are, and accepts you as you are. But by His grace, he does not leave you as you are. Even when it may feel like the emptiest of times. Believe. Trust. Wait. Learn.
Holy God, untamed by the names we give you, name us that we may know who we are, hear the truth that you have put in us and trust the love that you have for us that molds us into a more holy and human shape. May we grasp with conviction the certain truth that you know the plans you have made for us and let us walk with confidence into the future and hope that is ours as sons and daughters of God. Amen.
As a kid it was my favorite season. No school. Just shorts and flip-flops. Crabbing at low tide below the puff mud. Folly Beach every other day. And, just as an added point of emphasis, no school. The sounds and voices of a slower and less complicated time draw me back to boyhood days growing up in Charleston.
I’m not sure if its age or a radically different world in which we live, but summer is not unlike any other season. It all seems to meld into a continual strand of day upon day. Creativity is hard to discover. Some of us are tethered to routines that are boring at best. The Sacred is substituted for what we feel is necessary or essential for life. We’ve dismantled the claims of God upon us and heard instead to self-construct our own lives. Somewhere along the way we made the individual the center of all things.
Now the whole world of culture, history, education, and even families are seen as à la carte resources. We can just walk down the cafeteria line and take whatever seems relevant in collecting the life we want. And we listen to the voices . . .
We’re all living with those voices that tear at our souls. They may not force us into isolation, but it’s only a matter of time before they rip us apart with anxiety. Why would we put up with that when a Savior is in our midst? Psychiatrist Scott Peck has claimed, “The number one problem most people have in life is that they are finally unwilling to do the things that would bring a positive change to life.” They may know what to do, but they’re afraid to do it. As crazy as it sounds, people prefer the misery they know to the mystery they do not.
So what are the ‘things that would bring a positive change to your life’? How would you begin the process of restoring the ‘Summer’ of your soul? First acknowledge a life out of control, or moving toward it. For some of us, we’ve got to get off the crazy train and ask God to direct our days. He’s inviting us to live in contemporary society as a person who knows what to do with freedom. And rather than using that freedom to construct a life that will never be good enough, the Bible calls us to give that holy responsibility to God. And then in freedom, choose to fulfill what is our role in His dream. Start by asking Him what that would be. He’s been waiting a long time to hear that from you. It may take you a long time to hear that Voice. But when you do, it will be the start to a great Summer.
We all love parades. It’s how Palm Sunday begins. A long procession. Shouting. Happy faces. Branches waving in the air. Somehow I see Jesus smiling too. Riding on a donkey, slowly descending the hill from the Mount of Olives. Adoring crowds who converge upon him from almost every direction. Before things eventually go south and take a horrible turn for the worse, Jesus appears to be at the top of his game. His handlers, although fidgety about expectations many had for this new liberator king, couldn’t have been more delighted.
Expectations. They’re the foundation upon which all our disappointments are built. Often unreasonable they create extra baggage and cruel response when unmet. “Hosanna. Hosanna to the King” echoed up and down the Kedron Valley yet the crowd and “his disciples did not understand these things.” (John 12:16). Amazing! They were eye witnesses and yet didn’t understand their experience. It causes me to ask, “Would we have understood any more than they did?”
Sure, we know the ‘rest of the story’. Reading ahead, the parade gives way to a week of intense struggle and chaos. Joy turns to horror. Hopes are dashed and the dreams of a crowd become haunting nightmares of only a scattered few. But, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Would our expectations have been any different? Could I have understood at a deeper, more enlightened level?
Forget that. How do I experience the story of Palm Sunday and how does it read my life? Where am I among that noisy crowd? Would I have followed the parade with my agenda of how Jesus could have been useful for me? What benefit might be gained from following this new king?
Would I have been among the ones threatened by his radical teaching of love, grace and surrender? Would the scandal of blaspheme and His acceptance of kingship caused me to begin considering what I might lose in following this radical teacher? Or maybe like those twelve ordinary men, would I even have had a clue as to what was happening?
Perhaps that’s where Palm Sunday begins for us . . . with an honest confession that we don’t truly understand. The first time I ever stood at the Eastern Gate of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and looked at the processional road coming down the hill from Bethpage, I was overwhelmed by the thought of this very event. I tried to envision and grasp it but every mental image was incomplete. Yet again and again 2000 years removed from the event, I sought to take it in. Finally I realized, what He was giving me, and each of us who will celebrate this Palm Sunday, is the experience of Jesus’ arrival into our lives. That staggering gift, and the Holy Spirit who accompanies it, will remove our expectations and fill us with all that the Father’s heart can offer. Just wait a bit longer. It’s Palm Sunday. Enjoy it. But, there’s something even better to come!
Often our lives are so frantically filled with the next scheduled event. Any disruption or hiccup has the potential to create a domino effect where frustration leads to plans being derailed. Last week I had one of those days. Every minute was ordered. Important meetings were slotted into tight windows.
The mother of a close friend had died the day before and Linda and I had just enough time to drive from my office to the funeral home, spend a few minutes and return in time for a 5 pm meeting. We jumped in my truck and took off. Taking the by-pass I navigated around slower cars, exited onto Conference Drive, then boom! The front left tire immediately blew as I ran over an object in the road. Barely able to control the vehicle, I pulled over onto the shoulder. There we were. Our tightly controlled schedule was shot to pieces.
Shutting off the engine I thought, “I’ve seen The Christmas Story where the Dad has a blowout. I think I’ll stay in the truck or I might regret using words that are still tucked deep down inside.”
Linda asked, “What are you going to do?” I replied, “Changing tires isn’t my gift.” It wasn’t a snarky response. Seldom am I dressed in anything other than jeans. A funeral home visit and late meetings had me in clothes that weren’t well suited for getting under a car. In addition, I didn’t have a clue where I would find a jack, wheel lock keys or even how to access the spare in an almost new vehicle. There was no need to figure that out for a few more years.
I began the process of calling roadside service. It would be just over an hour until someone came to change the tire. Linda informed me that her gift was calling a friend. In ten minutes Joe and Dawn Gray arrived, picked her up and she was gone.
It was an hour of productive lessons. What happens when tight schedules are no longer under your control? Do we really know how to wait without worry, regret or anger? What is God telling us when we slow down enough for Him to actually get our attention?
The light began to fade. Traffic steadily increased as people made their way home. Finally the roadside service guy arrived. He got out, assessed the situation, strategically placed traffic cones and began his work. With a pleasant voice he said “I’ll have you on your way in about ten minutes.” “No way!” I replied, to which he responded “It’s what I do.” That still didn’t stop me from asking “do you want me to get out the Manual? I can Google ‘Toyota Tundra tire change’ if you want?” With the jack in hand he turned and inquired, “What do you do?” I replied, “I’m a Pastor” to which he said, “You don’t even know where the spare is do you?” I should have stayed in the truck because I was starting to think bad words again. Ten minutes later he was gone . . . and so was I.
“It’s what I do.” DO WHAT YOU DO.
God has uniquely given you skills, talents and gifts. He doesn’t give His heart to you in pieces. Neither does He give His gifts to you in that way. Find your song in the Sound of Heaven. Discover your gift in the Treasure of Heaven. It’s who you are, and it’s what you do!