Sunday, December 23, 2018

Home Alone, two thousand years ago.

The family holiday classic Home Alone is on constantly, sometimes in August.  It's a Christmas story that plays so often that if you're over twelve you can lip sync the dialogue by now.  Kevin Mc Allister is the youngest of about seven-hundred siblings.  His family all go off to Paris for Christmas vacation and Kevin is left behind, at home, alone. Mom and Dad are frantic but they finally come home to Kevin. You probably know every single detail of the film better than I so I won't torture you because, by now, this Christmas season alone, you have already seen it 10,563 times.

The first 943 times the film is fun but then it is so familiar you just mute the sound and keep it on only because it's Christmas time.  You grew up watching it, now for over twenty-seven years (!!!!), and watched others grow up with it so it's downright "Grinch like" to turn it off. Even if it's on in August.

This is my 57th Christmas.  The pathologies of my many Christmas pasts are mostly painful, some even tragic.  There is a lot of loss and sadness in my past Christmas seasons.  A lot of alone, at home.  I understand the depression in this holiday season that shouldn't grip people but does.  The melancholy under the boughs of holly is familiar to me.  My deep dread of the Christmas holiday season approaching, now coming in August, used to hit me really hard.  I would physically and emotionally curl up, withdrawing from the expectations as the days counted down to Christmas.  Then I had to recover in a week to look ahead to a new year with hope as the clock counted down on New Year's Eve.  I couldn't find that hope which led to more anxiety and more stress and more agony of heart.  I felt only deep, unhealed pain for weeks.  The loneliness was unbearable.  It took decades to work through those feelings at Christmas time.

Our feelings are there and real but they are a poor tool for life decisions  They can be overwhelming and all consuming which makes them a very poor tool for navigating.  We need wisdom and truth. Hard and stable things that don't deviate.  Tangible things.  I found those things in faith. A faith not in feelings, the warm and fuzzies, the tingles or tears, but stable, trustworthy faith in a Person who is revealed in His word.  The more I got to know this Person the more my pains and anguishes were relieved.  My alone at home was over because Christ had moved into my heart and was gradually rebuilding it.

It wasn't a small reno needed but a total rebuild from the foundation.  The work continues...

The Christmas story can be like the movie Home Alone, possibly, sadly even in the church.  It is just a few chapters of the birth of Christ. A baby in a manger, his virgin mother, wise men, angels, sheep, shepherds; let's open packages.  The story gets packed away with the Christmas tree and lights until next year when it's on again.  The world outside of faith hits mute and keep's it in the background, on but not watched.  We think we know it because we have heard it and seen it over and over again but until you know Christ personally to your miserable core and in your core of misery, you know nothing of the story.  Or how desperately you need to.

Today, in church, while hearing the story of Jesus' birth, now for about the 40th time in my life memory.  I thought of  something I want to share with you that made me laugh to myself a little.  Jesus had his own, Home Alone moment.

In a precious chapter in the second chapter of Luke's gospel we read a story about Jesus when He was twelve-years old.  His parents had gone to Jerusalem with a whole caravan of His family and relatives as they had done every year to celebrate a Feast.  The family leaves Jerusalem for home and actually leave Jesus behind.  They thought He was with their relatives and discover Jesus in not with anyone.  Mary and Joseph return to Jerusalem and search for Jesus for three days.

Three days!  Have you ever misplaced or lost an article of something valuable in your life for three days?  Do you remember the frustration, anger, misery, shock, pain, terror, loss, tears?  They misplaced, not carelessly but humanly, the Son of God. After three days they find Jesus in the Temple with the religious teachers asking and being asked questions and they are amazed.  His parents find Jesus in the middle of this, most amazing Bible class ever conducted, and are astonished.

They are astonished because, possibly, because the text does not say, they are watching their Son in His zone.  He is twelve and teaching religious elites through the scriptures.  You lose your son at a football stadium and discover he is on the field playing with the greatest players of his generation and they respect him, in fact, they are amazed at his skill level.  His mother, Mary, (the virgin will give birth to a son), in twelve years of Jesus in her life had forgotten why He came.

He came to teach us about God.  He came to teach us who we are apart from God.  He came to teach us how desperately we need God.  He came to die to pay for our debt to God for our many sins committed in our lives. He came to save us from wrath from a Holy God that only Jesus can save us from.  He came to give us life; life eternal.

Jesus was not at home alone in the Temple those three days.
He was in His Father's house and the Father was with Him.

If you need to unwrap or unpack anything this Christmas to find the missing joy in your heart that stuff or people or trips or work or family cannot satisfy, open the Bible and carefully, prayerfully unpack who that Jesus is in that manger scene and why He came to this earth.

She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.
Matthew 1:21.

Merry, Glorious, Christmas.


Wednesday, March 23, 2016


I'll give you an illustration.

When I was about ten years old my friend and I would occasionally spend a whole Saturday collecting bottles so we could see a movie on Sunday.  The movie cost about $1.25 for kids. Now the popcorn alone is about ten times that amount.  But back in the day we could collect enough bottles to catch a movie and eat popcorn and buy a soda and have some candy.

My friend Larry would go very deep to get those bottles.  He would wade through swamp water to pick up a bottle tossed into some floating green goo next to the road.  He would climb through thick pricker bushes getting brush cuts on his face.  If it was a hot day in the summer he would be thick with sweat and road dirt by the end of the day.  His cut-off jeans would be filthy.  His white tee shirt was now only fit for a rag bag and his Converse lows would squish some toxic, orange, swamp swill out of the breather holes on the side of his sneakers.  His hair would be stuck to the side of his scratched up and mosquito bitten face and his hands were covered with cuts.  Larry went real deep to get those bottles.  He went ugly.

The bottles he would drag out of the depths were nasty too.  They might be bug filled or worm filled. They might be full of stale beer, flies or an occasional salamander.  Mostly, they were filthy and sun faded bottles tossed along train tracks and country roads we grew up walking down.

Most importantly they had a raised text on the neck of the bottle:  Mass. Redemption.  5c.

Massachusetts had a redemption on beer and soda bottles back then.  They were worth a nickel.  To Larry that stamp was gold.  Or, at least, a satisfying Sunday matinee at the movies.

We would haul in our bottles to a liquor store and wait to see if they would accept them.   These bottles had seen some hard times for sure.  The owner would look at Larry, and then the bottles, smile, and count out a few dollars into his grubbed out hands.  Satisfaction would spread across my friends face and his blue eyes would sparkle through the grime.  Every bug bite and swamp splash was worth it.  It was movie time.

Two days from now Christians all over the world celebrate a Savior that died on a cross to redeem humanity.  In the United States that day is oddly called: Good Friday.  Before I came to faith in Christ Jesus I had absolutely no understanding why a man hanging on a cross could be celebrated as something, "Good".

Then I learned about the value God puts on us and what He did to rescue us.  I also discovered how ugly in sin I was in my life.  From God's holy perspective, and not my own, I saw my sin and it crushed me into a heap of regret and sorrow.  And then I discovered I was redeemed.  Not partially but completely.  That price for my soul cost God His precious Son hanging on a cross.  What makes Good Friday, "Good" is that it reveals God's love for this world.  It reveals that God is so loving that He would give us His own Son to redeem us from the sin debt we could never earn away on our own.

Our sin costs us.  It separates us from God eternally.  And there is anguish in that separation that you and I cannot possibly imagine.  God paid that price for us.  We just have to believe He did it and we need it.  And understand this, you are not comparing your goodness/badness with people.  You are comparing your goodness/badness to God's Holy standard, which is, Himself.

You might not see yourself that "bad" and maybe God will cut you some slack.  That somehow there will be a slack people to get out of hell and you will be in that group.  Please, don't think for a second that's true.  It's a lie.  If God cut anyone any slack His Son suffered and died for nothing.

Jesus came to rescue us from every sin-filled, hell hole we would crawl into.  He came to seek and to find the lost and wretched souls alive in the body but dead in spirit.  The tossed away lives living in various swamps that only God can reach into.  Living lives that need redemption.

We all, desperately need redemption.

As it is written:

There is no one righteous, not even one.
there is no one who understands;
there is no one who seeks God.
All have all turned away;
they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good, 
not even one.

Romans Chapter 3.

But He was wounded for our transgressions.
He was bruised for our iniquities. 
The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, 
And by His stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned, every one, to his own way, 
And the Lord has laid on Him
the iniquity of us all.

Isaiah Chapter 53.

To know you need redemption from every road apart from God you have walked on; from every swamp of pleasure or pain you wound up in, is a gift of God's mercy.  That knowing from His mercy crushes us.

In that awareness we remember His Son, Jesus.  We confess we need forgiveness and God picks us up out of the sludge, removes the vile things that we have collected in our hearts, and redeems us.

God searches for us, finds us and redeems us.

We love Him for it and share with others what He has done.

Good Friday He died.  Easter Sunday He is risen.  Risen!

This Easter weekend investigate Jesus Christ.  Risen, is playing at the movies.  When you sit there eating your ten dollar popcorn remember Jesus came to redeem, you.  I haven't seen it but what I've read sounds like it's worth every nickel.


Wednesday, August 27, 2014

When he knew me he still loved me.

When you think of a confession what scene comes to mind?

An interrogation room with a street punk sitting in front of two hardened city cops trying to get a confession? The room he's in reeks of stale coffee and cigarette butts.   How about a guy with a hood over his head and a knife at his throat?  That room has blood stains on filthy walls, flies buzz around the stink and there are various torture tools laying on a rusting, metal table.  Does a confessionary in the interior of a sepia toned church with large fresco paintings and a marble floor come to mind?  Prayer chants, candles?  Afternoon light streaming in through a massive doorway slicing the haze of incense dust?  An old priest sits on the other side of a screen?

Would it ever enter your mind this scene might be at a backyard, picnic table in suburbia in front of a struggling drug and alcohol addict?   The addict isn't making the confession, a self-righteous, arrogant, proud man lacking love and wisdom is confessing his heart to the addict.  The man wants to be forgiven for his coldnes that he showed the addict, he also wants to confess his lifetime of failures and foolish choices to him.  It will be the first time the man has ever acknowledged his darkest sins to a family member. This scene is true and  the addict was my nephew and I am that man.

What is confession?  I define it as a deep need to admit failure to someone who will listen and love, guide to truth and healing.  As a Christian, I believe confession needs to flow constantly to God and to others as I admit my sin.  (Sin means to miss God's perfect standards.)  Then I need to return to that place of failure and overcome the next time.  Ture confession with the sole desire to admit failure and seek forgiveness and a new life has the effect of keeping us humble before God.  It does what doesn't seem possible, confession brings us closer to God.  Everything in our natural thinking wants to excuse our behavior, to blame the situation, people, whatever, and run from God. It's not us, it's them, or that.  God wants us to own our failures when they are ours. When we learn about His character and love we run to Him with our failures. We start with God and move toward those we have offended then we purpose our hearts to walk in a new way.

God in His love knows our failures and waits for our hearts to turn to Him for forgiveness.  He is willing but we have to come fully convinced of our failures and wanting remedy.  When we justify ourselves before God, the flow of confession and the necessary understanding of our shaky ground breaks down. This blocked flow hurts us. We get hard in our hearts, self righteous, proud and lose compassion.  We become hypocritical and contemptible.  Love and truth dries up.

And He (Jesus) also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt:

Two men went up to pray, one a Pharisee (an expert in the Law of God and considered to be the holy standard bearers of their day) and the other a tax collector ( a Jew collecting taxes for Rome and a moral leper of Jewish society).  The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself:  God, I thank You that I am not like other people, swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week, I pay tithes of all that I get.  But the taxcollector standing some distance away was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, God, be merciful to me, the sinner.

I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.

Luke Chapter 18. 9-14

Drug addiction and alcoholism is a very complex, frustrating, hurting, miserable pain in the heart of society. There are so many people on the streets in our cities passed out, covered in stink and urine or panhandling for money in misery. Clinics and shelters are full to capacity and so are prisons. It can be maddening because it is such a hopeless and horrible situation that keeps growing and widening in misery.  When we walk by these people that seem to be everywhere we lose sight that they have families somewhere.  These modern day lepers and losers of society are people that are easy to shun because of their choices and we dismiss their suffering because they refuse to get help.  We dismiss them because they are way beyond our help and there are places that offer help that they must be refusing.  We forget their broken humanity.

Often: enter arrogance and self righteousness.  Not knowing, or dismissing, our own struggles and failures we compare our lives to that waste on the street and believe we got it all altogether.  And we may actually have a lot of it together but never enough to forget the leper inside of us that we deal with in our own struggles everyday. When we do forget what we are and who we are before God we become a Pharisee at worst and a hypocrite at best.

Two years ago this summer I was visiting home and my family with a very heavy heart.  I was going through a very serious time with God as He revealed my spots of leprosy. One night at a picnic table in the backyard of my sister and brother-in-law's house my family eventually moved indoors and left my nephew and I alone as the sun faded away.  We swatted and smacked mosquitos as I began to apologise to him for my arrogance and self-righteousness.  The bugs didn't matter anymore and we slowly looked up from the perfect lawn and into each others eyes as I confessed my gross, life failures to him.

He shook his head.  Not in the cold, pride I had shown him years ago as I poured out my advice about his struggles, but in empathy and love.  He shared his wisdom and understanding gained through years of heroin abuse and addiction.  He also told me things about what he saw in me that are mine alone to keep.  He didn't give advice or tell me about his life, he just listened and loved me and recognized familiar pains, shames and failures.  We finished our conversation and before he left that night I hugged him in his mother's kitchen and he hugged me back. Recently I was told he cried all the way home that night.  I will never see my loving nephew again because he died this month.  His broken life ended in the bathroom of a cheap motel.  He was one of many addicts in the area that had died this past summer from heroin overdoses.  His story was in the local paper.

Not the story of his accomplishments, his life pains or those that loved him.  Not the stories of the abuse he witnessed growing up that his father gave his mother.  Not the stories of watching his uncles and aunts shoot heroin when he was only a young boy.  They didn't mention his amazing kindness and love to the outcasts and the losers of the streets he helped.  The paper didn't mention his incredible gift to bring a room to hysteria with his impressions and crazy stories.  They didn't mention his accomplishments becoming a licensed plumber with a union card.  They didn't mention that he taught himself guitar and played in local bands.  They didn't mention that he loved nature and animals and loved to cook for friends and family.  They didn't mention his mother who spent well over a decade praying and pleading and begging God, and her son, to be free from his addiction and pain. They didn't mention his exhausted sister who gave everything she could possibly give to help him and now that he's gone a piece of her heart is misssing.  They didn't mention the family that loved him and how their hearts broke when they heard the news. They didn't mention the friends he knew showing up at his mother's doorstep in tears when they heard the news.  They didn't mention how much he loved, when he loved others. They didn't mention his heart-broken family that will miss him and that forever there will be a hole there that will never be filled.  He fillled our hearts and we will never lose the sound of his laughter when he was straight enough and sound enough to spend time with us.  The paper never knew those things and would never tell that story of the dead addict they found. Somewhere, someone only read the story of another junkie who died over the weekend.

My family said good-bye to him Saturday afternoon at a funeral home.  He was forty seven years-old and he finally lost his battle to addiction.  He lost his battle to a lie that said he could be free from his inner torments with a drug.  That lie is what killed him.  Different lies want to kill us too, let's be thankful that evil lie of drug addiction isn't pulsing through our veins twenty-four-seven, turning us into pitiful, miserable souls so desperate we will hurt or kill everything good in our lives to get it satisfied.

We cannot imagine that addiction unless we have experienced it. Let us be thankful, seriously thankful for that, and when we meet an addict on the street let's meet them with compassion.  Let's try to drop the hard attitude, drop the guilt trip, drop the sermons, drop the coldness and meet them with empathy and love.  That's how my nephew met me when he heard my confession.  God brought me to the exact person I needed to confess to that night and I will be forever thankful to God that I had that last face to face conversation with my nephew.  He forgave me and he loved me.

When he knew me he still loved me.   And that is how I will remember him.

God is close the broken-hearted and Christ came for the sick and the lost.  He ate and drank with the lepers of society and He loved them.  He loved them.  We must try to do the same.


Saturday, July 19, 2014

Marriage as truth.

I watched a romantic film yesterday.  I am embarrassed to admit that.  I hate romantic movies now.  There was something about this film though that kept me watching because it was a movie that doesn't work anymore.  And it didn't work for me not because of the genre or the believability of the story or the chemistry between the actors or the writing or the cinematography. That was all ok.  It didn't work for me because it was a romantic myth from the decades of the 1980's and 90's that they put on screen in 2008.  Older now and married for eleven years I rejected the myth completely.  I also hated the fact that I believed the myth for years of my life and so did most of America.

Here was the myth of 80's and 90's Hollywood: Two broken and lonely strangers come together and walk into a future based on romantic possibility ending with a gooey hope they will live happily forever.

The movie I watched a few days ago ended at the beginning of the couples future and we were left to wonder about their success in new love and happiness.  As the credits began I gave their success rate a big, fat zero.  In fact, in real time their future would have been over before the credits had left the screen.  That short.   My wife gave it less than zero because she refused to believe in the chemistry between Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson and left the room rejecting it all completely.

I love these actors and it was so good to see "Dusty" on screen again,  but it was like watching a Bogart movie without the noir, while I sat and added the noir.  Cynicism came over me along with a sense of their total failure at a future.  I'm not bitter about romance or the possibility of love happening for lonely people but as I watched I began to ponder the film's message and how that Hollywood myth poisoned love and marriage and fueled an empire of therapists and marriage counselors left to sort out the distortions and drain the poison. I took comfort as I realized I survived the 80's and 90's but those years affected my life and my marriage and I looked at that.  I thought about romance and faith and I thought about myth and truth.

I met my wife in a flash of love that overwhelmed me.  I tried to build my marriage on that foundation.  My brain had been filled with hours of movie viewing by that time but guess what?  My wife had watched other movies growing up.  She was also a working actress that never lost sight of the fact that film was just characters acting out a written scene with a huge crew standing around behind the camera. Her degree of suspended disbelief in a romance movie was and is zero.

A really bad and necessary wake-up call was waiting for me in my future with my wife.

It was a pummeling.  A brutal and relentless shattering of every 80's and 90's flick that I had consumed drove me to total despondency because marriage was supposed to have some incredible soundtrack going on constantly.  Romance and feelings and pure joy and Hollywood scenes were supposed to happen every day in my marriage.  They abruptly ended only a few short years into our marriage and I was crushed.  The myth died painfully and I mourned.  The mourning was my reaction to the poison I ingested for years finally leaving my mind and my heart.  The truth began to enter in.  Desperate for reality to fill the vacuum of what was lost in my marriage.....God entered in.  Marriage is not about romance or feelings or happiness, it was not designed for that, it was designed as a hammer to smash us into a pile of rubble where we would be built up into something altogether different.  It was designed to make us desperate and hopeful in the same instant relying on God to help us get through and grow.

The myth, the "love" film, that was supposed to be my marriage had to die in totality for that reality to come in.  Marriage is mostly hard for me (and my wife) with long seasons of reflections about how much I need God to help me.  And His comfort and concern and kindness, along with correction, gives me life and breath and hope.

We would have no marriage without God.  Period.

And we would have no love in our marriage without God either.

The sixties rejected marriage of the fifties and talked about free love.  I think that happened because of money and greater ease after America settled in after World War II.  The fifties was a time of America coming into the zenith of her American dream but then closed with the death of the Kennedy's and M.L.K. and the war in Viet Nam.  The dream was over and America reacted with a rejection and a fascination with exploring distraction and dumping every value that seemed like a sham anyway.  A schism opened up between generations.  The "good war" rescuing the world from tyranny and the war based on lies and greed of Viet Nam, music that you could listen to or wild kids banging on drums and guitars, stoned and screaming with hair flying around, restraint and caution rejected for abandonment and self-discovery. That chaos flowed into the slump and swamp of the seventies, oil embargoes, gas lines, easy divorces, jiggle television, abortions, union busting, discos, corporate expansion into foreign markets, all sliming their way into the cheese and sleaze of the 80's, health clubs, psychology babble, technology, more recklessness with fake money and the gluttony in the Reagan years, AIDS, MTV, cocaine and more oblivion into the expanding bubbles of the 90's, support groups, cable news, strip bars, strip malls, corporate greed, gangs, drugs, urban blight and porn addiction, political corruption and media manipulation: all the fruit then was ripe from four decades of manure and the fruit dropped in the form of two towers rumbling down in plumes of gray ash under a sky as blue and clear as sapphire.

Not in the dark.  This happened in a 360 degree bright, light of a day for everyone on this globe to see.

Now we are really going to have to deal with our lives and issues because "the" truth is staring us in the face and there is nowhere to run anymore.  We have exhausted ourselves in debauchery and excess as a globe.  The emerging markets will now mop up and run out the clock.  There is no distraction anymore that works, and most of us that use it know that facebook has to go in our lives.  We need reality.

We need truth.  Real truth.  Rip you open until you lie in agony wanting the truth that makes you free.

In the five decades that are my life, Hollywood and the music industry, along with politics, banking and media worked together to form a myth about life that was a lie. The lies multiplied and mutated and spread out affecting the globe through the internet.  A constant devouring of Hollywood film was the greatest vehicle of this deception until the music industry and music videos added a deeper dose of the drug for a new generation.  Every time I find myself in a crowd now I feel the ragged edges of five decades that I lived through and I wonder about the effects of those decades on the crowd around me. I wonder how aware they are of so much that is going on in the world and how we got here.  And what the Bible says about these times.

The world is 3D now. The fabric of our lives have been woven with deception, distraction and denial.   It rages now with smartphones and immediate access to all information.  Collecting all those facts and opinions, even when they are shockingly true and not lies, what difference does it make?  We are past the tipping point.  To gorge ourselves on information isn't really going to comfort us or help us.  To believe so is to believe in another myth that's out there; that we are all connected and we are able to change things for the better.  We are not connected, we are disconnected.  We are separated and divided and pulling in different directions.  There is no hope in us pulling us out as we get our acts together.  All the global information at our fingertips is ultimately worthless and we should not believe that it has the power to change our collective outcome.  That's just another myth and fabrication.  In the sixties they thought music was going to be the answer to all the world's problems.  To sing songs about peace and love and get high and drunk and naked was going to stop a war somewhere and eventually stop wars everywhere.  What a bunch of stupid, worthless, temporal crap.

Now, somehow, information is going to do it.

All the nonsense and meaningless, lifeless crap that was dished out to us for five decades.  All the lies and mythologies, all the distractions went through my mind as I sat watching a dead myth on television.  Interesting to me was a gray haired Dustin Hoffman was the lead in this romantic film.  Hollywood cast him to close the quotes to all the Hollywood mythology that "The Graduate" tried to get us to investigate in the sixties; it now had an old Dustin as the leading man in a romantic film that doesn't work in Hollywood anymore because romance in film, and also in life, is dead now.

It is dead for all of us.

We are all only facing severe, severe reality.

I love my wife and her constant pursuit of non-romantic truth.  I think about her when I watch breathtaking sunsets or falling stars that she can live without and I wonder about the future of our son.
I wonder about those I love as all things on this earth begin to come to a close.

I know I am inadequate, empty, weak and broken.  I followed lies for decades.

I pray and I tremble.


PS.  Love to you my amazing wife.  Happy Anniversary.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Elephants, chains and Mother's Day.

The training to break and train a baby elephant is brutal.  It is tied up in restraints, beaten, starved and kept without water until it gives up trying to get free and submits and learns a new way of "living".  A large chain, far heavier than needed, is tied around a hind leg and the elephant will exhaust itself trying to escape until it understands that there is no escape.  It will give in to the chain.  At that point the chain can be replaced by a rope.  The rope could be broken with some effort but as soon as the elephant feels the familiar resistance on it's leg it remembers the former futility and doesn't try to break free.

The elephant has been conditioned to accept it's captivity.  Later in it's life the power and strength of the full grown elephant is no match for the hopelessness in it's mind; and what it believes is true about what is around its leg.  The rope could be as thin and breakable as clothesline but that small resistance is enough to forever keep the elephant from it's freedom.

I have been thinking and praying about the power of lies lately.  I have gained so much insight into lies and how destructive they are and have been in my life.  There has been great discoveries in these past weeks and great anger and shock as well.

"Wait a minute!  This?  This is what I thought was a chain?  It was nothing more than a frayed rope."

I was kept by so much freedom and victory in my pursuits because of resistances that I thought were unbreakable chains.  I am thankful for the hindsight that is currently being applied.  To look back then and to look down now with new clarity and refuse to accept a frayed and dried out rope as being a chain anymore is huge.  Elephant huge.

It is a beginning.

Around this time of prayer and discovery I heard about a very close friend whom I love falling back into addiction.  For months he was making great progress in his sobriety.  His health was returning, his sleep, his work, he was laughing again and hopeful and he had the community of his family again.  Then someone gave him a car, with the freedom of mobility he hadn't had in years he went to a bar and blew his whole paycheck.  He threw months of pain and success, love and possibility away to go back to his cage and his chain.

 And to the familiar, hopeless dialog of addiction.

"I can't get free.  I will never be free.  I can't live without this drug."  And then to greater misery of denial where he cannot accept the fact that one drink or one drug can destroy his life in totality. Life in his conditioned mind is about getting high only and without that high life is rather dull and meaningless. Insisting that he isn't that bad or that there are worse prisoners than himself, he proves himself wrong by destroying his precious life over and over again.  Far worse than anything, and the greatest link in the chain that holds him bound, he believes he can handle it.  Deceived as the elephant but in the opposite way, my friend sees the chain which goes down into a pit, not as a chain, but as a thread that he can easily break or untie and that he controls the tension.  He doesn't yet see that chain in full clarity.  He still believes from the moment the desire to get wasted comes into his mind, which will destroy his walk to sobriety and will break every heart around him, he still only sees that chain as sewing thread.  And he goes back to the familiar chain until he wakes again in agony; more miserable than before because he has briefly tasted the hope of freedom.

Knowing more about myself and the many cliffs I threw myself off and the cliffs that are all around me still, I only feel compassion for my friend. To see what is a chain or a rope or  a thread in our lives takes a renewal of our mind.  It takes discernment.  It takes wisdom.  It takes honesty.  It takes humility.  It takes community.  It takes tremendous discipline. It takes truth.
None of these elements come easy and so it takes great courage.   Courage fuels perseverance.  Perseverance fuels hope.  Woven throughout those new and good substances that are more precious than gold is faith, trust and hope in God who will meet us in our weaknesses and make us strong.  A God of compassion and total understanding that looses the bonds and sets us free.  And sets us free not to go back to our chains but to walk in the place of victory.  A victory that expands inward in our lives and outward to those we love.

Discernment gives us the ability to see what is a chain of doom in our lives that we must avoid at all costs or what is merely a thread that is telling us that it is an unbreakable chain.  That discernment is outside of us in a fountain of unlimited power.  A Higher Power!

"Oh, but I don't struggle with addictions," one might say.  You still need a Higher Power.

Last Sunday afternoon we came home from church and a long Mother's Day celebration and went out at night to something completely different, an awards party sponsored by a men's magazine.   Beauty, glamour, celebrity and awards, and awkward.  My wife and I missed our son and our arms dangled next to us reaching for his hands.  We don't get out much together.  We dropped our son off for the evening with his aunt and uncle that he adores.  My wife waited in the car as I carried him up in my arms to their apartment.  He had on clean space man pajamas and his blue robe wrapped up against the spring air, his soft blonde hair smelled like baby shampoo.  A ten pound bag of his toys and books slammed against the side of my thigh.

With his arms tightly around my neck he waved good-night to his mother.  As we walked away from the car he asked me when we were coming home.

"We will be home as soon as possible son."  As the words left my mouth I was already searching for a prayer.

I left him in the great love and care of his newly pregnant auntie and hugged him goodbye feeling the tug in my heart to hold on longer.  The elevator ride down was very sober.  I prayed we would get back home safe and alive from the Portuguese highway lunacy.  When we were both in the car we just looked at each other for a moment.  We already felt bad leaving him.  I pulled the car out carefully and started for the intersection.  From behind me a black sedan almost ended our lives right in front of his aunt and uncle's apartment.  The car was cruising at over a hundred miles per hour on a city street.  He didn't see me, or didn't expect me, but he almost killed a little boys parents.  The driver missed us by the width of a layer of paint.  He continued on through the intersection running two sets of red lights and up a hill where he almost hit another car.

The driver of that car believes because he has a fast car, an expensive car, he has power.  He has power to do what he will.  He has no power.  He is merely but carefully kept by the grace and mercy of God just like the parents in a car he doesn't know.  Parents that pray every time they get into a car for God's protection.

We all need that Power daily, hourly.  Our lives are so fragile and challenged but it takes discernment to fully understand that.  Or to appreciate it.  Or to admit it.


Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Treasures Mined In Darkness.

Our son always goes to bed with a book, or two, or four.  My wife and I take turns reading to him in English and Portuguese and then we slowly shut off lights, pray together, and finally the lights go out and I tell him another story in the dark.  It's called a "dark story".  These are funny stories often about my family and my childhood, or how his mom and I met, or the things he did when he was growing up, or crazy tales with no endings. My alpha-wife falls asleep completely spent by her day but he and I will continue on and talk about our day, or laugh hysterically about our day, until she shushes us both to quiet down. In the darkness he always asks me a flurry of questions trying to hold off on sleep and they are usually questions about God.  His mind tries to comprehend complex issues regarding eternity, heaven, creation, angels or possibly how tall he will be when he's five.  When he's satisfied with my answers, or my struggles to answer, he will hold my hand until he drifts off into little snores.  It's a powerful part of my day.  All of what I wanted to accomplish and did or didn't succeed at throughout my day, all my plans for the next day, completely end as I hear the sound of his chest rise and fall next to me.  Alone in my thoughts next to him I often think about all the love and pain that brought me through to this time in my life.

Before he fell asleep last night he whispered, "Daddy, I will love you forever."

He fell asleep before I could reply.  I didn't have words anyway.  The gratitude and wonder of that sentence and what will be in our futures overwhelmed me into silence.  My mind went back to struggles and pain well over a decade ago but now to have all of this beside me and so much hope for more ahead of me, I had no words.  The gratitude actually hurt.  All through me there was a burning thanks that I could find no words for.  A place in me that I could not reach with language.  I could only hold the hand of our small son in the dark thinking about what he had just said.  I was profoundly grateful because at one time in my life I never imagined that I would ever hear that sentence directed towards me.  His words were a very significant sentence in my life, one that leveled me with honesty and challenged me as his father.

As I held his small hand I thought about the great age gap between us and I wondered quietly about our days together.  Of all that is ahead for him and how much of it I will be there for.  I thought about how short life is and how impossible it is that such an insignificant length of time can satisfy our lives.  I wondered about eternity, grasping for comfort,  praying that God would give us that timeless place together.  As I remembered where I was in the history of my life, I was without words to express the "thank you's" for where I am now, and the "help me's" for all that is ahead of me.

I fell asleep in the darkness weighing my responsibilities and aching for the grace and power.  It's a prayer that I am certain fills the hearts and minds of every parent on earth.  We all must believe in a future that is so different than what we can possibly imagine today and move towards it.  We may only have a glimpse of it in our battle but we have to move everything out of the way that would prevent us and keep persevering.  I am thankful for my son's words last night whispered in the darkness of his room, far beyond the darkness that was my life for years.  It gave me hope for today.

There are moments like I had with my son that we cannot see in our afflictions now but they are there; precious and in a future we cannot see in our current struggles. They are the valuable pieces of our individual lives that bring us hope with wisdom and encouragement that we can share with another.

The substance of these things cannot ever be bought but are treasures mined in darkness.


Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Invitations Are Being Sent Out.

You have an invitation.  You might have received it but never opened it.  You may stumble upon it every day in your day to day but still have never opened it.  The envelope that holds it is getting larger and brighter now so it doesn't get lost in the darkness.

Recently my wife was asked to make a quick video clip for an NGO to be shown at it's annual event.  The event was held at a small church where some of the members are connected to this NGO.  I can't name the NGO in this blog because to do so would put it at risk because it operates in a Muslim nation. The NGO is not a Christian based missionary outreach but it is mostly supported by Christian workers.  The NGO isn't a Trojan Horse to get Christianity into the country where they operate, it just happened that the workers are mostly Christian.  They are not in this Muslim country to start a church in a clandestine way but to help people who are living in desperate situations.  The Christians are going into this Muslim nation only to make a difference in people's lives for the short time they can be with them.

My wife and I sat with the two pastors that head up the NGO and they told us of some of the pain and hardship they encounter when they go into the city they work in.  I have known these pastors and many of the people that go with them for years now but I had no idea what they do and what they and their fellow workers confront when they do their work.  When they told us I shook my head in unbelief.  I wanted to cry.  I almost vomited.

These quiet pastors and the very ordinary people that go with them are going into a place of such poverty and squalor that would be enough of a challenge but the neglect and sexual abuse of the young children they attend to is beyond comprehension.  The NGO is made up of dentists, gynecologists, physiotherapists and ordinary people doing extremely unordinary things in a place so horrific it defies the mind to grasp it.  A dentist friend told me that when he returns from his trip there he holds his young daughter and weeps.

They are not going into this city with a mayor, the military, police or any local officials to protect them or a news crew to highlight what they are doing, they are going in by faith alone.  The officials of the city have written this part of this city off and Muslims will not go in there because they believe it is the place where the devil actually lives.  There are tourists who go in there though.  They go in to prey on little children that are abandoned to alleys with no safe place to go at night and no authorities to arrest their predators, or they avoid the street hassles and just pay the parents to have sex with their children. But it gets this town, 60% of people are handicapped...why? Because of incest.  There is no outreach to help these children or others until this NGO shows up twice a year.  It took days for me to process out what they told me at the table.  Just like my friend, the stories made me want to run home and hold our son.

If you think the church is a building, it isn't, it is a community of people. People coming together under a roof or in a field or a basement or a landfill all over the earth to study the Bible, learn and grow together, and then apply what they are learning.  Sometimes that application happens in very terrifying and difficult situations.  The Christians working in this NGO are applying their faith where there is nothing but thick darkness under bright African sunshine.  I am humbled to my core for what they are doing there; relying only on their faith alone.  Faith alone.  I could go on about the brutality and degradation, the suffering of Christians in North Korea being caged up worse than animals and tortured for simply owning a Bible and their desire to share the gospel.  I could write about the suffering of Christians persecuted for their faith in Egypt, Syria or in Nigeria but what I want to write about today is my personal pain of seeing twenty four empty chairs at a banquet table.

I went with my wife to the event and agreed to take a few photos for the NGO's website.  It was a miserable evening with rain coming down in torrents.  Traffic was backed up so bad that what should have taken us thirty minutes to arrive turned into a two hour traffic nightmare.  When we finally arrived I had time to walk around and take photos of tables and decorations because the event was running late.   Next to the main room there were two long banquet tables and twenty four chairs carefully decorated for people invited for an evening out.  It was a free event with excellent Portuguese food. The candlelit tables and the decorated seats that surrounded them was a statement of faith by the people who set those tables with faith that they would attend.  The pouring rain didn't diminish the care of the table settings or change the expectations that some, if not all, would arrive.

Eventually, none of those invited came in.  At the end of the evening the clean tables were stripped down and put away.  They all missed a beautiful evening with great food for a great cause.  They missed something much greater than that however; infinitely greater.  I do not know the reason each seat remained empty but I have some thoughts and not one of them has anything to do with the rainy evening or the traffic.  I looked at the table in sadness because these lives do not fully understand the party they declined to attend.  I believe many still want the other party.

Desires and dreams in a huge ballroom of confusion and darkness makes it difficult, if not impossible, to get out of that other party.  The love of so many things keeps most doors blocked.  Entertainment and consumption block some doors, relationships block others.  A sense of rejection or shame block others.  Pain,  hatred and violence blocks others.  Money and excess blocks others.  Biblical ignorance and unbelief blocks others.  Personal spirituality nail some doors shut. Other doors are blocked by crowds of people that seem to be having such a great time living it up, it seems this must be the place. Crowds gather around mostly at those doors because it would seem so.  Life must be a party, right?

There is an eternal divide between these two parties and the divisions and distinctions played out in our temporal world are getting more apparent to me every day.  I was a bartender for many years and I never needed a clock to know how much time was left before the bar closed.  I could tell by the last rush when everyone wanted to get another round of drinks before the bar closed.  The volume of the crowd would go up. The clock was winding down to closing time but everyone wanted to keep the party going.  They didn't want to leave.  They didn't want the illusive dream of a good night out they slaved for all week to pass away without a fight.  I sensed that same feeling in the traffic as we drove to the event that night; chaos, frenzy, a frenetic rushing with little courtesy to get somewhere.  Mob madness.  In my two hour traffic odyssey I thought about the madness not just on that highway but in cities all over the world demonstrating and protesting against corruption and brutal selfishness, voices making defiant stands against those who have lost their humanity for money and power.  And the forces against those voices use intimidation, deception, manipulation and fear, imprisonment and torture, war threats, empty promises, corrupt leadership, repression, suppression and greed.  Lobbyists buy governments and political and corporate corruption destroys societies, families and individuals while the very planet groans in ecological suffering under the weight of it all.  Fortunately, many people are finally recognizing that something is very wrong with what is going on and are looking around for a fire escape to get out safely.  To forget the blocked doors and look for another way; the only way out and to safety.  I attend a church where some people are entering the doors for the very first time in their lives.  Somehow they found the fire escape and they left the ballroom of confusion and darkness. That fire escape is the goodness and love of God calling people everywhere to abandon that party and turn to God and come out of there.  He is looking around that room for broken hearts and raised hands to grab.

Those twenty four seats that sat empty that night represent thousands, upon thousands, upon countless thousands that are being invited by God to attend something far greater than what this temporal world offers and has offered. These parties have a totally different atmosphere and spirit and a very different ending.  The invitations are after the hearts and lives of human beings.  Ultimately, the invitations are for the eternal souls of mankind.  There is no neutral response to the invite.  It's an all or nothing.  No one can attend both of these parties simultaneously by going back and forth because they are opposed like never before. You either love one or you love the other.  You either sit in one or sit in the other.  You embrace the values and enjoy the atmosphere of the party you're sitting in or you don't.

I attended the party the world desires for decades.  All the while, over the confusion and seduction of unmet promises of security and pleasures, I could hear and often see a very different party in the far distance.   A party that had a very different dress code.  The dress code there wasn't about wealth or power or prestige or perfection, it wasn't about talent or beauty or popularity, it was one where you came with a desperate need that could not be met at the other party. How I chose to meet my needs determined the party I was attending. In those decades (I will describe as: decades of deception.) I did not even begin to understand my desperate situation at that party in darkness because what I was pursuing was only leading me to my death.  For that is what the party I was attending was actually celebrating; it was celebrating death, my own and everyone next to me.  It didn't say so on the invite though. I had to get deep into the party before I took a look around at what it was doing to me and to others.  It was then I raised my hand.  "God, please rescue me from this place."  And His hand grabbed me. I pushed through the thick crowds and past one room of lies after another toward a narrow door, all in desperation to get out of there.  Finally outside, I ran for it.

Sometimes I wonder if I'm still running for it.  Some days I feel completely at ease and great at this new party and other days when I feel so unfit and too damaged to be there.  It is then I reach for the invitation.  I have a stamped invitation written on my heart.  And yet, I will never feel confident in myself that "I" belong at this new party or that "I" earned the right to be here.  I actually tremble.  Even in my deep gratitude, I tremble because it is such a perfect party and I am far from perfect.  Every seat was set by the One who invites all men and women and I fear I may break something.  I can only cling tighter to the One who invited me and Who stamped His Name on my heart.  A stamp of love that meant His own death so I could leave the party of death I was celebrating.  I couldn't get out of there without Him and as I stumbled through the crowds in darkness it was His voice and hand that was reaching out to me.  I do not deserve to be where I am nor it is arrogance to have hope that I was rescued.  I am in this new party only because of divine pardon and grace.  I heard something else and believed it to be true and reached out and felt a hand there.  Mercy was calling to me in the darkness of that party of death.  When I stopped to think about what I was doing I reached out for a hand that is so loving and kind, so perfect in goodness and so stable and trustworthy, I wonder why, why did I ever slap away such a hand?  Why did I stay where I saw the hands around me closed tightly into fists of rage or pain or grasping tightly to things they did not own and could not keep?  I believe I am most fortunate in my life because of this: I wanted to leave that party and a light shone in the darkness to lead me out.  I did not rescue myself nor could I ever.  I once was blind and now, by grace, I see.

There is so much to learn and do at this new party because it is not a big chill out party, it requires everything everyday pursuing new things in faith and courage. As weak as I am, as imperfect as I am, I never look back at that other party or that other time and feel any regret about leaving, I only feel loss of so much life because I didn't leave sooner.

And I wasn't able to take more people with me.

I'm at a new party now helping to set a table for friends and family with hope and with love that they will attend;  and when I look up at this amazing party so is everyone else around me.