Forever (Part 3)

church pews and stained glass

In my teenage years, I became a Pharisee (before I even knew what a Pharisee was) in my ritualistic and overzealous compliance to the laws of God as I understood them.  I was a dotter of i’s and a crosser of t’s when it came to God’s rules for right living.  I devised a scrupulous mental list of spiritual dos and don’ts and was nothing short of obsessive-compulsive in my attempt to adhere to each of them.  I confessed every sin, as I imagined it to have occurred, yet, just as I would confess one sin, another would rear its ugly, condemning head.  I became more frustrated with God, and downright angry at his insistence on perfection and my inability to comply.

My college years were an on again, off again spiritual crisis as well, especially the early college years of freshman and sophomore.  I attended a private Christian college, where I was surrounded by classmates who, from my perspective, were living the Christ-like life much more successfully than I was.  How much I despised their joy, as I felt little of what they were feeling.  In my sin-clouded eyes, they were the ones who had it all together, unlike me with my struggles.  Depression and anxiety were my twin foes, who would not leave me alone.

I recognize now that the grace I was searching for in my childhood, adolescence, and young adult years was the very thing that kept me from totally losing my mind.  While I yearned for a watershed moment in my understanding of God’s unconditional acceptance and grace, God supplied me more subtly in the form of encouragement from family members and friends.  These were the precious pearls of the Gospel of Christ. They were the left-over scraps from the Lord’s table of grace.  They sustained me, or at least held me over, until I could fully feast on God’s undeniable goodness.

Today, I’m an adult and the pastor of a small church in a medium-sized city.  My heart hurts for those who have yet to experience in its fullness the grace God offers in Jesus.  I’m especially sensitive to those who live in fear and confusion about what God is truly like.  I guess that’s, at least in part, why I’ve written these words.  I’m amazed at the grace-filled love of God and awestruck at the notion of spending eternity in a relationship with him, and I want everyone to know this reality.

Forever (Part 2)

stained glass colors

I know now that I hated God.  It’s not that I wanted to hate him or would have ever let it show.  Perhaps, hate is too strong of a word.  Still, I was certainly frustrated in my relationship with God.  I found myself in a spiritual conundrum.  I had to love God in order to be a good Christian boy, one whom the older ladies in the church would be proud of and smile at for no apparent reason, but the more I tried to love what I viewed as a judgmental and wrathful God, the more hopeless I became.  I couldn’t force myself to love God as he desired, especially when he so loosely held my eternal destiny in his hands.

Now, it would be inaccurate to say that my childhood was a complete spiritual train wreck.  Each Sunday I dutifully took my place in the church pew seated next to Grandma, evermore craving the afore-mentioned candies from her purse.  I attended weekly Wednesday night classes as required by our pastor and church board, where we learned all about loving our neighbor as ourself, then afterward played “Kill the Guy with the Ball” until someone began to bleed or cry.  I lived the typical life of an adolescent male, albeit one who had deep theological misgivings.

I guess I had sort of a fairy tale, Santa Claus-like brand of theology.  I had no problem believing all the stories of the Bible, even the hard ones in the Old Testament like Jonah spending three days in the belly of a fish and Samson fastening torches to the tails of foxes.  I accepted such stories in child-like faith and wonder.  It was the other stuff I had difficulty with.  I viewed God as just, but struggled with his compassion.  I had no problem thinking of God as fair, but apparently skipped over the parts of the Bible that talked about his mercy.  This is what I mean by my Santa Claus-like theology.  I was certain that God rewarded good deeds and punished bad behavior, and that the good boys and girls would get the gifts of his grace, while the bad kids would receive the proverbial lump of coal, which, in this case, only stoked the Devil’s fiery flames.

(To be continued…)

Forever (Part 1)

church pew

My earliest thoughts around the idea of eternity occurred to me as a child.  Sitting on one of the hard, wooden pews in the small country church I attended, I found myself wrestling with this most challenging of concepts.  I was a religious kid, at least on Sunday mornings, when my family and I would don our Sunday best and travel several miles to our place of worship.  We picked up Grandma on the way, whom I would sit next to during the hour-long service, mostly because she would share with me the candies she had wrapped in the white silk handkerchief discreetly hidden inside her purse.  It was there, beside Grandma, that I would ponder all manner of things pertaining to God, where time and again I would return to my thoughts on eternity.

I’d like to say that my budding theology around this subject led me to a greater sense of awe at the mystery of God.  Then, I would worship him in child-like amazement, having the clearest of understanding that my eternal destiny lie in the presence of my Creator in a wonderful place called Heaven.  My childhood fear, however, was that there was the ever-growing possibility that I might spend eternity, not in Heaven, but in the place of perpetual torment called Hell.

To say that Hell frightened me would be a gross understatement.  The idea of Satan and his demons, a fiery pit, and everlasting pain and suffering terrified me.  Fear was a constant childhood companion, one that would only ease its cruel-hearted harassment once I received my first, sweet taste of God’s infinite love and undeserved mercy.  Still, sitting next to Grandma, I felt hundreds of miles away from any sort of grace that God had to offer.

(To be continued…)

Foul Ball Kindness

baseball 2

“And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:6-7, NIV).

Recently, I attended a minor league baseball game with my family.  We enjoyed the view from our seats, the all-you-can-eat concession stand, and the in-between-innings entertainment.  Early in the game, a player from the opposing team hit a foul ball.  The baseball sailed high into the air before falling into the stands, taking a few unpredictable bounces off nearby seats, and landing in the waiting hands of my son, Aidan.  He was now the proud owner of his very own baseball that had been used by the professionals!  I commented on Aidan’s “luck” at catching a foul ball, and humbly shared the fact that I had never caught a foul ball before.  He was surprised by that, as he held his souvenir baseball tightly in hand.

Later in the evening, Aidan approached me and told me that he wanted me to have the baseball he had caught at the game.  I knew how special it was to him and was amazed at the sacrifice he was willing to make.  I allowed Aidan to keep his baseball, but I still hold tightly to the memory we share of the game.

Kindness is one of the fruits of the Spirit spoken of by the Apostle Paul.  Kindness is demonstrated when we put the best interests of others ahead of our own.  Of course, we have the ultimate example of kindness shown to us in Jesus.  He was willing to exchange our sins for his grace.

I won’t soon forget Aidan’s kindness in offering me his baseball.  I’ll always remember the kindness of Jesus in giving me eternal life.

Broken

communion broken

Holy Communion is one of the sacraments, or “sacred acts” of the Christian Church.  For those who aren’t familiar with this practice, it is a time set aside to remember the final meal Jesus shared with his disciples just hours before he would die on a cross.  The Lord’s Supper, or Eucharist, as it is sometimes called, is celebrated by Christians throughout the world.

During Communion, the elements of bread and grape juice are served with the reminder of Jesus’ words to “…‘do this in remembrance of me’ ” (Luke 22:19, NIV).  As the bread is broken, we recall that Jesus’ body was broken on the cross as he died to take away our sins.  As the juice is shared, we are reminded that Jesus’ blood was shed for us at Calvary.

This past Sunday, I had the privilege to serve Holy Communion at the church I serve.  This is always a special time for me spiritually.  I connect with God and my congregants, in a unique and meaningful way.  On this particular Sunday, I was reminded again of the significance of Communion.  As I took the circular loaf of bread to tear into two pieces, there was a split-second moment in which the loaf appeared to me to be in the shape of a heart.  And, as I tore the bread apart, I was reminded, not just of Jesus’ body being broken for my sins, but that God the Father’s heart had to have been broken over the death of his only Son.

For me, this was a different way of looking at and thinking about the sacrifice God made to erase my sins, that God would allow his child to suffer so that I, his child, would not have to, to give him up to death so that I could have life.

This is what Communion means to me, that God’s heart was torn into pieces as Jesus’ body was broken for me and for you.  His blood was shed to take away all of our sins.  We are forgiven.  Remember that.

Dismiss the Doubters

wildflowers yellow sunlit

“(Jesus) went in and said to them, ‘Why all this commotion and wailing? The child is not dead but asleep.’ But they laughed at him.

After he put them all out, he took the child’s father and mother and the disciples who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, ‘Talitha koum!’ (which means ‘Little girl, I say to you, get up!’).  Immediately the girl stood up and began to walk around…” (Mark 5:39-42, NIV).

Great things are accomplished by faith.  Sometimes, however, we must dismiss the doubters.

Jesus was approached with the news, first that the synagogue ruler Jairus’ young daughter was sick, then that she had died.  It had all come about so quickly, and Jesus, it would seem, was simply too slow to respond.

“…‘Why bother the teacher anymore?’ ” (Mark 5:35, NIV) the family and friends of Jairus asked.

But, Jesus told Jairus, “ ‘…Just believe’ ” (Mark 5:36, NIV).

When Jesus arrived at Jairus’ house, a crowd had already gathered there.  These mourners were inconsolable and grief-stricken.  Then, when Jesus told them that the little girl was only sleeping, their cries of grief turned into rumbles of laughter.  “What a foolish thing for Jesus to say!” they thought.

As Jesus entered the room of Jairus’ daughter, only the girl’s parents and Jesus’ disciples were invited.  The others – the doubters and disbelievers, those who had mocked Jesus and laughed at his words – had already been put out of the house.  Their doubt would not be allowed to interfere with the miracle that was about to take place.  Soon, the little girl would be healed.

There are several lessons to be learned from this story, but here’s one angle.  At times, we too, must dismiss the doubters.  Otherwise, their second-guessing, their cynicism, and their skepticism will not allow us the room to do what is needed.  Our ambition and our dreams will be undermined by the nay-sayers if we allow them to stick around.

So, just who are the doubters in your life?  Who are the whiners, the wailers, and the laughers that you need to put aside?  I’m not saying that you need to make a complete break from them, although sometimes that can be the case.  But maybe they do need to be put out of ear-shot.  Don’t let the doubters deter your dreams.  And don’t let the foolish sway your faith.  Just believe!

Reunion

number 92

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin” (Hebrews 4:15, NIV).

 This past weekend I returned to my hometown of Ellsworth, Kansas for its 150th birthday celebration.  There was a parade, games for the kids, music, a rodeo, and so much more.  But the highlight of my weekend was getting to take part in an informal 25-year class reunion – shout out here to Ellsworth High Class of ’92!

I must admit that I was a little nervous to meet up with my former classmates, many of whom I hadn’t seen in twenty years or more.  I was never the most popular kid in school and now I was less fit with less hair and even less confidence.  But, as I approached the place where my classmates were meeting, they began to cheer and welcomed me with handshakes and open arms.  We talked at length about our experiences, our kids, our joys, and, within just a few minutes of arriving, I felt like I had never left this group of classmates, this group of friends.

Later, I thought about the kindness of my classmates and the joy we shared in being together once again.  I wondered what bond had held us together after all the years of being apart.  Finally, I figured it out – we had experienced life together.  Through all the joys and pain of childhood and adolescence, the confusion of being a teenager, and the responsibilities of being a young adult, we had stood beside one another.  Together, we had faced the emotions of first crushes and break-ups, math tests and sporting events, our first days of school and the final months of our senior year.  We had faced all of this together, and, in this way, we could relate to one another.

My experience this past weekend reminded me of the blessings of friendship and how God puts people in each of our lives for a purpose.  It also reminded me that God himself, in Jesus, chose to take on flesh and become one of us, to experience life with us and for us.  In this way, he could relate to us.  He lived a life that was perfect, knowing that we would struggle with the messy things of life, and finally, he died for us, because he loved us that much.  Someday soon, we will experience a reunion of sorts with him, in Heaven, and there will be cheering and open arms.

Class of ’92, I can’t wait to see each of you again!  Thanks for reminding me of my many blessings.

Scooby Doo and Jesus

scooby doo

“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20, NIV).

 One of my favorite shows as a kid was Scooby Doo.  Every afternoon at three o’clock I would turn to the Super Station WGN, Channel 13, on my family’s large box television set to join in the adventures of Scooby, Shaggy, Fred, Daphne, and Wilma.  On any given afternoon, I would be right there with the gang, riding around in the Mystery Machine (which never ran out of gas) fighting crime and solving mysteries.  Ghosts, goblins, and ghouls couldn’t outsmart ol’ Scooby, who’s only compensation for his work was a handful of Scooby Snacks.  I never ceased to be surprised when, at the end of the show, the culprit’s mask was taken off, and he was Mr. Jenson from the carnival or some other hoodlum.

Masked men and women made Scooby Doo intriguing to this 8-year-old.  Not that I would have committed such heinous acts as the villains on Scooby Doo – I was a pretty good kid after all -, but the idea of being disguised was a bit appealing to me.

As a sinful human being, I sometimes feel like I’m wearing a sort of mask.  Although not a zombie, mummy, or monster, my disguises can be just as scary.  But, as a Christian, I have a different identity.  And I hope, that once the mask is pulled away, my truest self is revealed.

My hope is that, underneath the facade and fake appearances, people would see Jesus living in me.  And my prayer is that I would look more and more like him each day.  By the way, Scooby and Jesus would have made one heck of a duo!

King of the Mountain (Part 4 of 4)

mountain king 4

Today is the final post in my “King of the Mountain” series.  Over the past several days, we’ve been looking at man’s hunger for power and position, often attained at the expense of others, and how Jesus’ teachings run contrary to such attitudes.

Jesus taught that “‘Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all’” (Mark 9:35, NIV).  That is what Jesus told his disciples following an argument concerning which of them was the greatest.  I’m sure that Jesus’ statement that day shocked his disciples as they were confronted with a drastic challenge to their way of thinking.

Jesus didn’t just talk about greatness through servanthood.  He demonstrated it.  I want to close today with a passage from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippian church.  It reads like this: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.  In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.  And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:3-8, NIV).

Jesus had, to himself, all the riches of Heaven, but he gave it all up to come to Earth as a baby who would one day die on a cross.  That is true greatness!

 

King of the Mountain (Part 3 of 4)

mountain king 3

Today is Part Three in my “King of the Mountain” series.  The overarching idea here is that too often we try to elevate ourselves to positions of authority and influence at the expense of other people.  Today, we will be looking at and contrasting a couple of people from the story of the first Christmas found in the Bible Book of Luke.  We’ll be talking about King Herod, the maniacal and paranoid king of Judea, and Jesus, the “…King of kings…” (Revelation 17:14, NIV) and the Savior of the world.

First, let’s discuss Herod.  Known throughout history as Herod the Great for his notable accomplishments in building and running an empire, Herod is also known for the murders of those he viewed as a threat to his kingdom.  In fact, Herod killed several family members, including his wife, in a desperate attempt to maintain his status as king.  One of Herod’s greatest assaults on humanity was his order to have hundreds of babies put to death throughout the region.  You see, Herod had caught news of the birth of the baby named Jesus, the newborn king in Bethlehem, and feared that Jesus would usurp his authority.  Imagine being so paranoid that a toddler would take over your dynasty, that you would massacre innocent children in an attempt to eliminate Jesus!  Herod would not succeed, however, and the Holy Family would make their escape to Egypt.

Jesus, in fact, would someday become “King”, but his kingship would be quite different than that of Herod’s.  Jesus promoted peace, not violence, and mercy over justice.  Rather than elevating himself, Jesus chose humility.  And, instead of condemning others, Jesus chose to show them compassion.  Jesus even went so far as to die on a cross, forgiving even those who placed him there.

We’ll learn more about King Jesus in my next post.  Stay tuned for Part 4 tomorrow.  Thanks, as always, for reading!