August 29, 2015

I was in tenth grade on my way to basketball practice. Let’s be very clear here. I never actually “played” basketball… just went to practice and warmed the bench. (I don’t like when people claim things by insinuation that are not true.) Anyway, I passed the wrestling room and I noticed an adult I had never seen before wrestling with the team. I knew he wasn’t a coach so I was a little curious. I asked someone who he was and no one seemed to know. I could not have known on that day that the man I saw sweating on the wrestling mat would have the most profound impact on my life of any mortal man outside of my father. I could not have known that he ran a Christian ministry that I would shortly be exposed to where my entire life would be altered. I could not have known that he would be indirectly responsible for Ellen and I getting married, our children, and my calling into the ministry. I couldn’t possibly know all of that. On that winter day of 1969 he was just some guy on a wrestling mat whom I had never seen before.

In 1968, through a tragic set of circumstances, my sister Donna and I had to go live with my newly married father and step-mother. We started at a new school a couple of weeks into September. I remember well the day my dad took us to the high school to get us registered. But it’s the next day at the bus stop that’s seared into my brain. Naturally Donna and I were new to the neighborhood so we didn’t know anyone. And kids aren’t confident or forthright enough to go introduce themselves in those sorts of circumstances. If you have ever been the “new kid” at a new school or new community you know what I’m talking about. The awkwardness is so thick it can smother you. I couldn’t possibly know that some of the folks from whom I was avoiding eye contact that day would become dear, lifelong friends.

Our bus drove past the stop to turn around in a parking lot a mile or so down the road, so its eventual arrival was predictable. 30 seconds before the lights began to flash, another girl ran to the stop at the last second. She had been waiting in her house adjacent to where we were standing for the exact moment. I noticed her. But I could not know on that day that she was “The One.” I couldn’t know that she would preoccupy my mind for the better part of the next 4 years of High School while I waited for her to notice me. I couldn’t know that our first date would be my Senior prom, the only prom I ever attended. (One was more than enough!) I couldn’t know that she would write to me EVERY DAY for 2 ½ years while I was away in the military. I couldn’t know that she would one day say, “Yes.” I couldn’t know on that September morning in 1968 that she would dominate my thoughts for the next 47 years. And of course I couldn’t know that she would be the mother of my children. I just couldn’t possibly know those things while waiting to board a bus in 9th grade.

I’m going to guess that each of us can remember days when people came into our lives and everything changed. Life is like that. We have no idea when something will happen. A new set of circumstances… a person… an adventure… a diagnosis… an opportunity… a tragedy… will present itself/themselves and everything we’ve known is altered. We surely don’t wake up in the morning cognizant that something like that will happen. We just don’t know. And yet our lives are full of those occasions – good surprises and not so good ones.

The truth is, we worship a God of surprises. I always find those WWJD (What would Jesus do) bracelets to be somewhat ironic. I think those who wear them have either not read the New Testament, or they just haven’t thought about it much. Jesus’ life was full of the unexpected! I think if any of the apostles had seen one of those bracelets, their answer would have been, “Not a clue. Haven’t you been watching this guy!?” And yet so many seem to have all the answers when it comes to the comings and goings of God. Seriously!?

Exodus 14: 21 Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night the Lord drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land. The waters were divided, 22 and the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left.

Sooooo… do you think Moses saw that one coming?

Genesis 22:  When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. 11 But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

12 “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”

What do you think? Abraham was waiting for just that very thing to happen, right?

John 11: 38 Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. 39 “Take away the stone,” he said.

“But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.”

40 Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”

41 So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”

43 When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.

Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”

WWJD?! “Oh, he’s just going to raise him from the dead. Yep, that’s what he’s gonna do. Yes-sir-ee Bob. This is Jesus man. I know what he’s going to do. Yeah he’s predictable, my bracelet says so…” Trust me no one was expecting Lazarus to walk out of the grave. No one!

If you are looking for a predictable, certain, tame, inevitable, obvious Lord and God… well, the God of the Bible isn’t the place to look. The Bible claims a God who desires our worship, no matter what sort of surprises He throws our way – good and bad (from our perspective).

If you want a predictable God you need to follow the televangelists. They know everything. They wear gold bracelets.



Law vs. grace

August 11, 2015

Do you know what “ham salad” is? Well, for most of us it has little to do with “ham” and even less to do with “salad.” No doubt some folks actually prepare it with ham but we mere mortals make it with bologna… or shall I say “coagulated fat and cholesterol.” Anyway, it’s a mixture of the aforementioned “ground, mashed fat”, mayonnaise and dill relish. It’s then smeared onto a bread of your choice; preferable spongy white bread so as to get as little nutritional value as possible. If you haven’t had it or seen it, then you must be from another planet or at least from a different country. It’s somewhat of a staple in American sandwich lore. Not unlike peanut butter and jelly, BLT’s, or egg salad sandwiches. Anyway…, I can’t stand it! It’s a waste of good “fat” as far as I’m concerned. But here’s the rub. I do like sliced bologna, dill pickle and mayonnaise sandwiches. Do you get that? It’s exactly the same ingredients albeit a different consistency. I would go so far as to say that the sandwich I just mentioned looks much like the ham salad sandwich, 10 seconds after entering the mouth. That doesn’t make sense, does it?

There are a lot of things in our lives that don’t make sense if we take the time to think about them. Few of us are really consistent in our thoughts and beliefs. For the most part we live flying by the seat of our pants and we choose our values and morals based on what’s advantageous for us at any given moment. For example, I had a conversation with a couple of friends a few weeks ago. I asked this question, “Should Christians obey the laws of the land?” (Assuming they are consistent with our faith. I’m not talking about civil disobedience here.) Furthermore, is it sin if we do not? And is sin a problem? Can I suggest that many, if not all of us, will answer “yes” to those three questions. And yet we regularly drive over the speed limit with little thought about that. The other example that I discussed with my friends had to do with remodeling our homes. In our community you can’t really hang a piece of dry wall in your house without a building permit, and yet so many of us ignore those sorts of things.

I know someone will say something like, “Yeah, but speed limits are somewhat ‘general,’ or ‘everyone goes over them,’ or ‘they set the limits knowing you will go faster, so it’s okay to travel 5 mph over the…’ blah, blah, blah…” Don’t get me wrong; I regularly drive over the posted limits. My car knows well the speed of sound. Well okay maybe not that fast. But I fully admit that I am breaking the law and it troubles me more than I like to acknowledge. I have no desire to rationalize my “speeding sin” even thought it seems small relative to other more grievous things.

I guess all this has something to do with Christian integrity. How can we address the immoral laws of the land if we are unwilling to follow even the simple ones? Seriously how can we? I might add that it’s hard to discuss this without spilling over into legalism. But that’s just the point isn’t it?! Doing what’s “legal.” Keep in mind that “legalism” in and of itself doesn’t have to be bad, at least from a secular perspective. It primarily means “religiously” following the law. Of course it’s not the same in our faith. In the faith, when “law” replaces “grace” we lose sight of Jesus and that is SO EASY to do!

I was taught early in youth ministry that “relationships take precedent over programs,” i.e., all that we plan ought to be about facilitating relationships, not about just creating funny, creative, attention grabbing “shows.” And yet I have seen too many youth leaders spend an inordinate amount of time on programming at the expense of meeting and getting to know kids. We almost always gravitate toward program and away from relationships. In the same way, we are drawn toward “law” and away from “grace.” It’s easy to see in churches that have “rules” against seemingly everything and yet they don’t come across as being very loving. It is possible and essential that we do both! We need to follow Biblical precedents AND love those who don’t at the same time. Anyone who says that Christianity is easy isn’t really a practicing “Christ One.” Try loving those with whom you stridently disagree or who you think are misleading your kids, or who have values that you believe are ungodly and morally damaging. Once we get that under control maybe we can move on to other important issues. After all, what did Jesus say about the most important commandments? Love God. Love everybody else.

Maybe I should say something brief about “love.” Sometimes love means saying “no.” Think about that.

Today I should have called this “meanderings” instead of “ruminations.” Sorry about that. I also should have posted this last week but Ellen reminded me that there is no “law” saying that I have to do this weekly, so I’m relying on grace.