Baltimore Reflections: Day 2 and 3

Our thirty hour bus ride to Baltimore suddenly met a slight extension. We left Friday and it was 1am on Sunday when the bus broke down one and a half hours from the church. I looked out the window and realized that we were on 495 just north of Silver Springs. This meant that we broke down in the only place where it would be difficult to get help. Literally, thirty minutes down the road either way we could get help quicker. So we called people and waited… and waited… and waited…
Most people don’t realize how organized I am. I don’t often appear organized, but most of the time I have all the details in my brain or on paper filed in a specific order. My good friend Mike Rowell put it best a few years ago, “John, you’re way too high strung. Don’t worry… you don’t have to have everything figured out… it’ll all work out.” Ever since he said that to me, I have tried very hard to trust my Messiah to take care of my needs. So knowing that about me, you can understand my feelings when a bus I am on with 56 other people breaks down and the bus company did not have the wherewithal to have a back up plan. I was a little more than frustrated to say the least.
The Bus driver was great! He worked tirelessly to get us a replacement bus. It just took him 7 hours to do it. At 5:30am I called the church. Jeff rallied the troops and had nine cars coming to pick us up at 6:30am. Fortunately, they didn’t have to make the trek. The saints at Valley woke up and prayed, shortly after 6am the bus company had finally found someone who would come get us. Stressed, irritated, and anxious to get off the bus, we loaded the replacement bus and headed toward Valley. Remarkably, our students did not complain and were in high spirits (Jesus has truly worked in the heart of our students! They are incredible!) The new driver did not know the way and began to take us through down town Baltimore adding another one and a half hours to our trip! I moved to the front of the bus and directed him to the church.
When we arrived, we unloaded, I hugged my family, we set up our beds, we worshiped God for a safe journey, and went to work preparing for the week. I felt like God had finished with me that morning, but God seldom finishes the lessons in this life so soon. I was frustrated and thought I was doing a great job hiding it when a young student said to me, “Who are we to think that we can go on mission with Christ and not suffer something. This is going to be a great trip!” My heart was struck with my own arrogance. The voice of a young boy spoke wisdom into my soul and knocked me off my pedestal of self righteousness. Not once had I stopped to consider that this may be a blessing. Looking back I can remember the brothers and sisters saying things like, “God has reason for us to be stopped,” “perhaps he is saving us from disaster,” “I guess the church needed more time to get ready for us,” “God is good, He let us break down in 68 degree weather.” My people understood suffering as sharing in Christ when I did not. I understood this minor trial as the bus company’s lack of preparation. My perspective needed to change. The minor amounts of suffering we participate in are given to us to enjoy Christ!
Just a note, I am in no way categorizing sitting on a comfortable bus on the sit of the road for 7 hours with the suffering of our brother Christians in other countries. For that matter, I am not equating it with the true suffering in our own country… we did not suffer, we waited. I am merely pointing out that God is teaching me to enjoy Him and trust Him rather than myself and my own comfort.
More to come later.

Mission to Baltimore Reflections, Day One

We loaded the buss and immediately settled in for a thirty hour drive in a buss with just enough room for your knees to touch the seat in front of you. After about four hours people begin to run out of conversation and eyes start to turn to the scenery. So, in line with everyone else, my own eyes drifted to the window.
In East Texas, the sky is vast and the land feels incredibly open and clear. In reality, there are simply no hills and the trees are large shrubs at best. Therefore, it feels like the sky is huge! However, as we rode the buss away from Texas, the trees began to grow. The sky began to shrink. And a subtle reality began to settle over me.
In Texas, I feel like a giant! I feel as though I am master over my land. But as I watched the world around me grow to immense heights, I realized how small I am. In Mississippi, trees began their towering ascent to the heavens. In Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee (I think we went through those states), the land began to raise the trees up on shoulders. Our buss transformed out of the powerful height from which we looked down on the world, into the tiny cab in which we looked up at the world.
A startling realization struck me when we arrived in Virginia. We are small. We are small and subject to God’s hand in all things. We are not merely little! We are in all ways small, weak, and in need. The Bible refers to these towering trees and mountains as a footstool for God. I am a speck compared to such giants! This great reality leads me to consider humility. It is only when I am humble that I can see the greatness of God. If I think myself so grand, I will never be able to enjoy the vast nature of God’s character. G.K. Chesterton says it well, “One sees great things from the valley; only small things from the peak.” So, I must place my perspective in the valley, looking up at the mountain peaks. I must become the least in order to see the glory of God. I must consider everything and everyone as greater than myself. Otherwise I will always think myself on the mountain peak and thereby never see the great things.
Humility opens our eyes to see the glory of God. So, let’s live in the valley.

Lunch with dad

My brother wrote a blog recently that inspired me to think about an experience I remember with my dad. It was the summer when we were moving to Maryland. My dad needed help getting boxes from his office to the car. So he enlisted the aid of my friend Chad and myself. Chad was a great guy who was unusually strong for his age and I was a wimpy little runt. So really, dad was enlisting the help of Chad. Nevertheless, as we headed up to his office we acted very official and asked important mover questions like, “when is lunch?”, “how many boxes?”, and “is there a cart we can use?” My dad was very patient and answered every question with the utmost professionalism, playing along with our need to feel as though we had been hired. I think we may have carried about ten boxes total from 9am to noon, when dad took us to a Chinese place around the corner.
Dad loved food. All food. Not so much for the food itself, but for the experience of eating it. (Peanut butter covered Twinkies were one of his favorites. Sometimes, mom would leave the house on dad’s day off and he would tell me to watch the window. When she was out of sight I would hear, “is she gone?” Then enthusiastically I would run to the kitchen and he would hand me a peanut butter covered Twinkie! It was great!) When we arrived at the small Chinese hole in the wall, Chad looked at me and said, “you sure this is the place?” I said, “just come on, it’s gonna be good.” (it was probably the worst Chinese food I have ever eaten.) We sat down and saw a roach scamper across the floor. Dad said cheerfully, “this is a great place to eat!” We sat and ate and talked about life for a good hour and a half before dad stood up and said, “alright, back to work.” It has been years since I sat in that pitiful little Chinese restaurant and I am only learning what it meant to dad in the last few years.
Clearly, dad, a 6 foot 1 huge man with two bigger stronger older sons, did not need the help of his 14 year old, 125 pound, soccer playing boy and his best friend to help him move boxes. No, like the food, dad was in it for the experience. He would do things with us just for the experience of it being with us. He taught me to use an axe under the guise of helping him with the sticks in the yard. He taught me how to draw under the guise of asking me to draw him things in the house. He taught me to swim under the guise of racing! It was always about the joy of experience. So now, I try the same with my daughter. She’s only 20 months old, but I look forward to every experience I can with her.

Lazarus

The account of Lazarus’ death exhibits a wonderful revelation of the character of our God. You know the story, Jesus is with his disciples and Mary and Martha send word that Lazarus is ill, “come quickly.” Jesus responds, “don’t worry, this doesn’t lead to death.” But you know the story, Lazarus dies! What is peculiar is the way Jesus phrased it. “This illness does not LEAD to death.” The Greek reads: “This weakness/sickness is not toward death.” However, Lazarus dies! Verse 14, Jesus clearly validates this, “Lazarus has died…” So we enter the paradox. What could Jesus mean saying something so obviously contrary to what he has already said? Can Jesus’ words exist in paradox? Or is their something wrong with the way we see time as having a beginning and an end? So I’ll leave you with the question to ponder. How can Jesus say, “this sickness does not lead to death.” And then follow that with “Lazarus has died!?” (Just a note, he still dies, even though he is resurrected, he still dies.)
Then Jesus states, Lazarus is sick for the glory of God! How remarkably strange it is that Jesus is claiming that Lazarus is sick for the sake of Jesus’ glory. Clearly the rest of the story must explain this. And so, the resurrection explains this mighty statement.
Then, Jesus, because he loves Lazarus, Mary, and Martha, delays for two days. It sounds weird when you stop there doesn’t it? Because Jesus loves them, he waits until Lazarus is dead? (There goes the prosperity gospel out the window! If this story is applied the way prosperity gospel preachers apply Abraham’s blessing, Jesus wants you to die in your sickness!) Because Jesus loves them, they will suffer great emotional strain! Because Jesus loves them, they will experience death. Because He loves them, one of them will die. Because He loves them…. Because he loves them… Could it be that sometimes we encounter the greatest struggles in life, because He loves?
Jesus then says, “let’s go to Judea again.” The disciples are naturally concerned, considering, the people in Judea just one chapter before tried to stone him. Yet, Jesus persists, we are going because Lazarus is dead! So here I want to rest for a moment. Jesus first waits two days, because he loves this family. Then he goes to be with them, to feel this trial the way they do. He goes to stand with them in their trials. He weeps with Mary and reasons with Martha. Our God engages us at our very core. He walks through the trials that are so difficult for us. When I say “He walks through the trials,” I don’t mean He walks by our side or that he carries us through them (though many times He does). What I mean is that he falls with us and feels the pain we feel. He takes our trials upon Himself. He carries our hurts and mourns with us. He lets us reason, answering our intellectual questions with clear and definite answers. Our God is personal and gracious. When we live here in this desert land, waiting for the promised hope of Glory to return, we have a God who lives with us, leading us through the desert, teaching us to be more like Him, and dwelling amongst us. He bleeds with us, weeps with us, and finally breaths hope into us. Our God cares enough to listen, walk with us, and live with us. What a great God!

The Pharisee

Every year, in our Church’s Passion Play, I play a Pharisee. Mostly because I haven’t got a lot of time to memorize lines and I guess I’m naturally pious and religious looking. There is one thing about the Pharisees that strikes me… they think they’re right. It’s an awful position to be in when one thinks that he is right. It is a position that must at some point be dethroned. In some manner we all must be Pharisees at some point, standing before God asserting that we are right in the face of His perfection.
Anyhow, every year I am drawn back to the three parables in Luke 15. They are perhaps the most well known parables in Christianity: The Lost Sheep, The Lost Coin, and The Prodigal Son. Take note, the Pharisees are the ones who inspire this system of parables in verse 2. They see Jesus hanging out with people who are wrong and say, “we are right!” Jesus then, the crowd captivated, launches into this famous series of stories. The first and second are easy enough to understand: God rejoices over a repentant sinner more than we rejoice over our possessions (and that’s a lot of rejoicing! I mean, for real, how many of us are geeking out over an iPad or the latest iPhone? Or if you’re me, the new ancient text your mother in law found at some thrift store… I know, I have no right to laugh at all you techno guys. Anyway, what were we talking, oh yeah… ) The third is a bit different.
We’ve always taken the prodigal son to be about just that, the prodigal son… and indeed, in some ways it is. However, the story actually climaxes with the older brother. He stands outside the feast pouting and the father comes out to him. He heard of his brother’s return while he was working in the field and is not pleased that his father has decided to throw the biggest party the city has seen for this no good lousy brother of his! You can imagine his posture, right!? He is near tears from anger, like you were when you were a child and your mom has just shattered your world by telling you that you must give the toy back to your sister who took it from you in the first place! He has that look, you know, watery eyes, confused anger, attempting to maintain respect and composure for someone you feel so much contempt for. Hands shaking as he paces on the porch, lining out what he is going to say to his father for this impertinent behavior. As the father comes out, the confrontation ensues.
Verse 28 presents the confrontation in a very different light. From the perspective of the older son, it is a battle for justice, the integrity of the family name is at stake, equity between brothers must be instated! But from the father’s perspective, the older son is missing out on the joy of the father. So, the father entreats, or pleads, with his eldest boy to join the feast. But the eldest son is right! So he will stand for justice and he gives his answer in verses 29-30! The reality is that his answer is incredibly selfish. We can imagine how that feels. You know, its like when we say something that sounded so right in our head and comes out sounding so absolutely wrong. At that point we are stuck with a choice, do we hold fiercely to our selfishness, shaking in anger, attempting desperately to hold back the flood of tears? After all we were right in our heads just a moment ago! Or do we silently hang our head in shame, let the tears come, and ask forgiveness?
The father’s answer is profound. “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” You can almost imagine Jesus looking past the captivated crowds to see the eyes of the Pharisees in that line. Their eyes watery at the apparent rejection of their father through Jesus, their fists clinched in anger at his forgiveness of the sinners, their knees week and stomach in knots at this confrontation. He catches their eyes with his own and says, “Son…,” He goes one to explain that they are invited to the feast and should rejoice with the father!
The catch is whether or not the older son goes in… we don’t know. Does he insist that he is right, or does he submit to the father and go in? What about you?

The Leper

In our passion play we have this scene:
The leper walked toward the crowd, ringing her gong and saying “UNCLEAN, UNCLEAN!” The crowd draws away in fear with an audible gasp. The leper’s cry is a horrific recognition that she is outcast from society. It’s a terrible paradox: she must proclaim her desperate state in order to protect the society that she is outcast from because of her state. The leper’s existence is miserable. She is confined to loneliness, yet surrounded by people who avoid her at all cost, whom she must also avoid in order not to taint them.
As she approached the crowd, one man stands apart. He walks toward her. She draws back shaking her head and saying, “Unclean!” As if to say, “can’t you see that I can’t be around you, I’m doing this for you, can’t you see I’m keeping myself from you!?” This man insists motioning with his hand indicating that it is ok, and she need not back away. Confused, the leper stands still as the man lays his hands on her head and she is made clean! Rejoicing! She can be a part of society. She is clean.
We sometimes feel as though we cannot share our struggles with our church or we will taint it. Although often our motives are less for the holiness of the society and more for some ideal picture that we convince ourselves we are preserving. We hide our sins and our struggles, we mask our depression and weakness, we cover over our failures and lacking, we convince ourselves that we are protecting everyone else and preserving out society. It is a miserable state. Lonely in the midst of people who are all masking their sins in order to preserve the community. But we have a great healer. You live in community with other believers so that Christ could cleanse you of your sin, and you could find victory over this death and life in His body! We are to approach our struggles directly within our community and Christ will work through us for the victory.
The beauty of this portrait is in the leper’s cry. She recognizes that she is unclean, that she is tainted with a disease, a death that she cannot get off. The crowd’s response is to run away, but Jesus attacks the death head on. No depth of disease can stop Him and she cannot back away far enough for Him to stop His advance! Her cry of “UNCLEAN!” cannot keep Him at bay. She cannot stay His hand, He is not afraid of the death she is covered in. He deals with that which taints her and cleanses her directly. She will never deal with that death again. For those who believe, this is our story.

Romans 8:1-4
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

Hallelujah!!! We are clean!

Flash Prayers

About a month and a half ago I was struggling with a feeling of anxiousness towards some people and truely a feeling of uncertainty. I shared with my small group that meets on Thursday night (which is AWESOME) and one of the men pulled me aside and said, “I think God just wants you to be quiet and watch Him do it.” So I tried it… Amazing!
I’ve been wonderfully blessed lately to see God answer prayer. Francis Chan explains that one of the differeinces between our God and others is that our God listens to us. I’ve been touched by this reality… especially lately. It has been my delight to lift up seemingly trivial matters to the Lord and watch Him work, without me saying a word. Someone has a head ache… I pray, “God could you heal this, please… that would be awesome.” Someone is depressed, “God could you bring them joy” Somone is anxious, “Lord give them peace” Somone is angry, “Lord give them love and calm them down” Somone is foolish, “Lord give them wisdom.” Someone denies the Gospel, “Lord save them.” And on and on and on.
God is good! He has answered soooo much, just in the last week alone.
So try it… pray. You don’t have to say anything outloud or light candles or speak in a breathy tone voice. Just pray. It’s awesome!

I John 4:7-12