Some of you may have read or followed my previous blog “This Sojourner’s Path”. It ran for nearly 3 years and much of it focused on who I was and what had happened to me to make me who I am…and my attempt to work through some very difficult issues. If you are interested to know what makes me tick then read below some of the most liked posts from that blog and some of my favorites.
This is the season for being thankful and if you read my previous post I listed some of the things that I am most thankful for. But there are a few more specific things and people that I thank God for. Not to make the others seem less important but there are people and things that have special places in our hearts…apart from everything else. I have a sister who died of lung cancer….she is one of those people.
Kathy was unlike any of my eight brothers and sisters…a melody only she could hear. She had a quirkyness that made you laugh and a logic that made you believe. She was not an especially deep thinker but she was wise – not a critic, not a judge, not a jury. She had that way of looking at you that at once made you know you were caught but at the same time know that is was alright because we were all caught about one thing or another. She was real. She minced no words, although sometimes you wished she would have.
There were many years that Kathy was gone away. She had made some difficult choices and walked some very rough paths neither of which I am qualified to write about…or judge. She made it through those struggles and I was able to develop a relationship with her that even after her death has kept me going. For a number of years she lived across the road from our family farm. There were many times I would sit with her on her old front porch in the evenings or sometime early mornings. She would play her guitar and sing songs she had written and I would listen. She would share with me things the Lord was teaching her and experiences she’d had and her dreams. Often times her thoughts were random and disconnected…more musings than anything…but then there were times when streams of life would flow out of her mouth and I was a lap dog. She was the second person I told after I had accepted Christ and after that we had a whole new world to talk about. We talked a lot. I desperately miss those times.
Over the years our relationship came and went like ripples on water. There were times when we were distant and untwined and then other times when we would sit, just the two of us, and reconnect the way friends, too long apart, would do. When I learned that she had lung cancer I didn’t really know what to do. I knew what the outcome was and I did not want to go there…not yet…not ever. Life and death are not in our hands. The how we sometimes know but the why is rare. Those are decisions we are not clever enough to make. Years later when it as discovered that I had lung cancer I could not help but think of what Kathy went through…and If I were consigned to the same fate. And I wished I had paid more attention.
I am thankful for many things about Kathy, but the one I am most thankful for is her understanding of peace. Peace with yourself, peace with your family…peace with God. Because of the choices she had made and the things she had experienced she understood that it is important to do something about the things that are in your control and not sit on the sidelines waiting. And that it is just as important to leave those things that you can’t control in the hands of Someone who can – and have faith that He will. The three men in the furnace were not taken out of the fire but protected in the fire. David was not left in the camp during the battle but given the tools to be the front line. And Joshua didn’t cower beneath the walls of Jericho…he stood on top of the rubble. Kathy did not die because of cancer – she lived because of Christ…and sings because of grace.
I am so thankful for the time she and I had while here in this world…and I am thankful that eternity is waiting.
As a young associate pastor, I was doing things that I felt passionate about, working with people that I cared deeply for, and serving in a place that had always been my home. One day, after about a year and a half in the position, I was asked to leave – out of the blue with no warning. Not just leave the job…but leave the community; in fact, to take my family and move as far away as I could in order to gain more of a “world perspective”. I was told I was being subversive, not following the Holy Spirit’s leading, and defiantly resistant to the work the Lord wanted to do in me and in the church I was serving. I haven’t written or spoken about this experience very often. I have never returned to pastoring – the politics of power of the modern church has left a bitter taste in my soul and left me craving a more personal and intimate experience that can only be found among friends. As I’ve written in a previous post, “Revealing Conversation”, there are still some wounds that haven’t quite healed and fences that haven’t been mended…and maybe never will be. After that event I spent weeks just trying to wrap my mind around what had happened. Did I do something wrong; did I break the rules; was I blind? And the biggest question of all, was God even there; and if he was, did He care? With all of the emotion involved the answer was unclear. While very painful and emotionally draining, the experience taught me about making the hard choices and being willing to step away from the familiar.
The paths we walk are rarely straight. They meander and twist and double back sometimes. Often there are side trails or forks in the road. Most times you can just stay on one path and handle what comes your way, but other times you are forced to make a choice. Do I keep going on this path or choose a different road? This was one of those times for me. It wasn’t just about losing my job or being unsure of how my family was going to survive. In this event I was presented with a choice of the heart. Who was I going to be moving forward? Who was I going to follow? How was I going to life out my faith in a way that others would see Christ in me apart from the church?
Several years ago I had a vision…I had been going through some internal struggles as I was learning to walk with the Lord so I went to a local park and sat on the beach staring out over lake Michigan, deep in thought and crying out for answers. Out of nowhere, I saw an aircraft carrier anchored just off the shore and thought it quite strange for Lake Michigan. As I rubbed by eyes and tried to look closer I was suddenly standing on the deck of the mighty ship and Jesus was standing with me. There was no one else on board – no crew, no planes, no rush or commotion, all empty and silent. Jesus asked me who was on the ship. “No one”, I said, “There’s no one here, not a soul”. He asked me this same question 3 or 4 times and I replied the same feeling more frustrated and confused each time. Finally, he touched my shoulder and I looked him in the eye and again he asked, “Who is on this ship?” I looked at Him for a moment, finally realizing who was with me, and said, “You are…” Then he said, “Ok, now let’s move on,” …and I was back on the beach sitting in a puddle of tears.
There is no path worth walking down if Jesus is not on it. There is no journey worth taking if Jesus is not leading…and I have never seen Him on the path that looked safe. He is in the struggle…he is in the storm…he is in the heartache; and if that is where He is, then that is where I need to be. Since stepping out of the modern church, I have come to understand some difficult things that I never would have otherwise. I’ve learned that the Good Lord hears the whispers of our souls more than the screams of our flesh. I’ve learned that He is more often seen in the nooks and crannies and quietness of life and not in the big, choreographed productions. I’ve realized that though justice may be desired, mercy is required, (that’s a hard one). And most importantly, I’ve learned that Jesus never pushes but always tugs at out heart encouraging us to walk with him.
So We Could Have
Most people think of spring as the season when you get your cleaning done. Out with the old, tattered, worn-out things that do nothing but take up space. Or maybe New Years as that time when we decide to begin something new, take on a new challenge…start over. The reality is that these things can be done anytime of the year, and this Thanksgiving and Christmas season is the perfect time to turn that corner.
Many of us go through these holiday seasons like robots. We have our traditions – that party that we always go to, those songs we love to hear – the feelings we haven’t felt the rest of the year somehow are allowed to reveal themselves now. We laugh and visit relatives; we give gifts and share meals together. We’ve spent so much time during the year running around, seeing people without really looking at them; hearing voices without really stopping to listen. We could have entertained angels and not even known it. This is the perfect season to apply some perspective to our daily race.
Thanksgiving is a time to “give thanks”. Not in a casual way but in a deep-felt, genuine attitude of gratitude. We are taught as children to say “thank you” but often not taught why. We are told that it is the polite thing to do and it is left at that. But, we say those words because someone gave something up so that we could have it…and we are thankful for their gift. That is why we say “thank you”. They chose to go without so that we could have. Would we have done the same? I hope so. Thanksgiving is far more than just a turkey and pumpkin pie…it, along with Christmas, is a time for giving. The one for giving “thanks” and the other for giving “gifts”. For both it really is all about the giving. And we give because of what was once given to all of us. He was given because we did not have…and we should be thankful…and do likewise.
“Are You Kids Alright?”
This is a tough one to write. I have never really written about this topic before, or even talked about it much with anyone, but aside from my acceptance of Christ it is the single most influencing event of my life and in many ways has caused me to become who I am today. Christmas, 1980 was not a very good one.
It was December 16th and I was 12 at the time. I remember that it was a very cold and clear winter day. We had already gotten a lot of snow for the season with snowbanks already taller than I was. One of my chores was to haul in the wood for the stove and the bin was already empty from the day’s burning. As many twelve year olds are prone to do, I was procrastinating and honestly just being lazy. By the time dad got home from work the wood was still not in the house and he was pretty mad about it. So after a bit of a talking-to I bundled up and followed him out to the woodshed to do my job. He was chopping some kindling and piling wood on the sled for me to haul. He did not follow me back to the house. As I was bringing in the wood my mom asked if he were coming back in. I said he was still in the woodshed so she went out to talk to him. As I glanced out the window I saw her helping him into the passenger side of the truck…dad always drove so I knew something was wrong. She came into the house, made a couple of phone calls, and said that my brother would be coming over to help milk the cows and that she was bringing dad to the hospital and would be back later. About an hour later the phone rang and my brother answered…dad had a massive coronary and had died in the truck on the way to the hospital.
My brother made a couple of phone calls and went back out to the barn to finish the chores. One of my sisters went up to her room and I don’t remember seeing her again till the next day. My other two sisters and I began to cry alone in the living room, not knowing what else to do. About a half an hour later people began showing up at the house – first our pastor, then my older brothers and sisters, all with food in hand – probably their dinners that had been interrupted. It seemed like forever but when mom finally came home the first words I heard through her streaming tears were, “are you kids alright?” We were not…and neither was she…but there was really nothing else to say at that moment. This was the second husband she had lost unexpectedly, and the second set of children she was left with to raise alone.
I don’t remember much else from that moment on. Bits and pieces of conversations here and there, Kleenex in hands and silent stares – the cross our pastor was wearing as he sat with me on the couch, holding my hand. One thing that I do remember clearly is a long cold walk with my older sister who wanted to get out of the house for a minute or two. We walked the entire length of our long driveway arm in arm with tears freezing as they fell. She was talking about a lot of different things, as she often does, and she kept saying over and over again that Jesus loved me and that He would be my Father now. I will forever be thankful to her for planting that seed…about a year later it took root as I accepted Christ as my savior and I have never regretted that choice. She was there when that happened too.
I have spent a lot of time over the years working through the guilt and anguish of those events. For years I felt guilty because dad was mad at me for not hauling in the wood so it must have been my fault. For even longer I tried to figure out why my dad and I always seemed to be at odds with each other and how I never really thought I measured up to what he wanted. These are feelings I’m sure many young boys feel and, to be honest, many men feel. I have to concede that what I know of my dad and our relationship is through the eyes and understanding of a 12 year old boy – incomplete at best. I am still trying to figure out how to let God be my Father and how to be a dad to my kids and hoping they never wonder if they measure up. I could not be happier that the Good Lord has blessed me with two great kids.
There is much more to write about this time in my life and I’m sure I will put it down on paper at some time. These memories are very real to me during the Christmas season; even more so when I think about my mom suffering through end-stage Alzheimer’s and what that means. She’ll be 87 in a couple of days and she knows better than most that life can change on a dime. If she were able to speak, even with all she is dealing with right now, I have no doubt that her one concern would be if we were alright.
Yes, mom…we are.
The Hidden Gift
Ribbons and bows, paper and string; packages under the tree come in all shapes and sizes and colors. Gifts that show that we care for the person receiving and that we are cared for. Some presents have a personal sentiment attached that is not so much about the object in the box but the reason behind it. Some gifts are not in a box at all, but given with a look or a hug or a snugly held hand – these are often the best kinds.
As a young boy there were many things that I looked forward to and many hopes and wishes I had on Christmas morning. I remember in my younger years finding several Tonka trucks under the tree; trucks or cars of all kinds were always favorites. I remember a race track one year that provided hours of fun until I broke the tiny pins under the cars that kept them on the track. Board games and puzzles and scarfs or mittens or socks were always under the tree. And at the time they all meant something to me at the time. There is one gift, however, that I will never forget.
It was mid November of that year when I came home from school and found mom busy around the house getting dinner ready and cleaning up from what seemed a very busy sewing day. Bits of scrap fabric and thread were strewn all over the kitchen and her sewing machine was still warm from the whirring of the motor. My curiosity was peaked because for weeks before I had been telling my mom that I had wanted a sock monkey for Christmas. I had seen a picture of one in a magazine and thought it was the cutest stuffed thing I had ever seen. Plus it was made out of soft, warm, fuzzy socks so it must be great to cuddle with. While mom was in the other room I snuck a peek around the sewing scraps and found bits of sock monkey socks and a part of the wrapper that the socks came in. I could barely contain myself! My wish was going to come true! I managed for the next few weeks to keep a lid on my excitement, but this was the one gift I was most looking forward to that year.
I was the first one awake that Christmas morning and when my sisters came downstairs I was sitting there in front of the tree staring at the packages and bows and ribbons and lights, wondering which one the sock monkey was and just waiting for the go ahead from mom and dad. We tore into the pile spewing ooh’s and ah’s at what we were discovering. A game here, a pair of mittens, a puzzle or two, underwear, (really? Who gives underwear for Christmas?); but something was missing. After a half an hour or so, when all the gifts had been opened and we sat among ripped paper and packaging, there was no sock monkey. I was crushed; I was sure mom had made me one; how could I have been wrong? I spent the better part of an hour fiddling with the gifts I had gotten trying to hold back tears over what I had not. I heard mom and dad muttering in the kitchen about something so I got up and went into the kitchen trying to get up the courage to ask about the sock monkey. Mom noticed me and asked if I had found everything and I nodded. She asked if I were sure and that I might want to look again…maybe a little higher. So I went back to the tree and slowly scanned the area finding nothing left under the tree. I walked around to each side and even tried to crawl behind the tree but all I found were some needles that had dropped off the tree. As I stood there in front of the tree, with nearly tear-filled eyes, I looked up and there, deep within the branches at my eyelevel was the most perfect sock monkey I have ever seen. The floodgates opened – I reached into the tree and put my tiny hands around the toy, pulled it out and held it to my chest.
I have thought a lot about that sock monkey over the years. Such a silly thing to fret about, but I have learned something. The best gifts are not found among the shiny, glittering packages of men, but hidden within the heart of the Giver. Still today we snuggle small stuffed animals deep within the branches of our Christmas tree, barely visible, as a reminder that just because you may not see the Gift, He is there, and often in the most unexpected places.
God’s Christmas Tree
We always had a freshly cut Christmas tree. As a kid growing up on a farm with a lot of land in the U.P. of Michigan, trees were plentiful. Of course, the chosen tree was never perfect and was often one-sided but that didn’t matter because the not-so-perfect side would be against a wall or in a corner anyway. I can remember traipsing through deep snow with ax over one shoulder and a sled in tow that always turned out to be too small for the job. I don’t know why we never paid any attention to the trees in the summer and marked then which ones would be good to pick. Instead we would just set out on our cold, arduous adventure to find the best of the worst…it sometimes took hours. One year dad brought the chain saw because he saw the top of a very large tree that he thought would be good. It was a big old white pine that had few branches left toward the bottom but a full top. As it turned out, the top was much bigger than thought from the ground and it took a significant amount of cutting to get it to fit into the house, and when we did it filled out almost the entire dining room. That was the tree that the sock monkey was stuffed into.
No matter the tree, the trimmings usually made up for the faults of the tree and by the time it was fully decorated we didn’t notice that it was not perfect. Back in the day, (we’re talking 1970’s here), the typical decorations were very shiny and sparkly and colorful. Add in the giant lights that you had to clip onto the branches and the streaming tinsel all over the place and you end up with something that is more akin to a disco ball than a Christmas tree. Perhaps that’s why the song “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree” was so popular back then…
On our very first Christmas together my wife and I went out and got a real tree to decorate. It wasn’t a very big one, about 5 feet tall. We shared the joy of picking out decorations and deciding on a theme for ‘our’ tree – it was simple, earthy, rustic, white lights…no tinsel. It was such a joy to be in our first house in our first few months of marriage sharing our first of now 20 Christmases. For the first week or so it was wonderful, then little by little the needles began to turn brown…first only a few then in droves. It still didn’t look too bad with all the decorations on it and we were too in love to really care too much anyway. We had our gifts underneath and were waiting eagerly for that first opening of the first Christmas gifts as a married couple. Coming home from a weekend at her parents…only a couple days before Christmas…we discovered a leak in our roof right above our very special tree. Not a little leak but the kind that eliminated what needles were left on the tree and soaking each and every gift that was underneath it! We recovered, but that was the first and last real tree we ever had. A few days after Christmas that year we went out and bought a brand spanking new factory made tree on an after holiday markdown…
Over the years I’ve learned that it’s not the tree that matters so much – whether it’s real or plastic with fancy decorations or simple homemade treasures – but what it’s there for. For children it is there as a place to put gifts, and for most that is all that really matters. As adults we understand this and want to give presents to our kids that will make them happy, keep them safe and warm, and make them feel cared about. If kids understood what is really going on they would see that what they really crave is to be loved and that is what the gifts truly are – a demonstration of just how much they are loved. I don’t believe this sentiment is lost on the Good Lord, either. On his very first Christmas, he decorated the sky with twinkling stars and angels proclaiming good news of great joy. I can imagine giant swirls of clouds and cosmic dust draped like garland around the expanse! Then He placed a big bright star on top of it all, calling attention to what was going on underneath on the earth below. And we, like children, ought to be excited about that one gift that was placed under that heavenly tree so long ago – he is showing us just how loved we all are…
There are just some things that we will never understand; at least not in this fragile life here on earth. I will never understand why my dad was taken away when I was 12 and I will never understand the mix of emotions it caused inside of me and those around me. I will never understand why, as a young pastor, I was ‘let go’ and sent away like a scape-goat, feeling like the sins of the flock were being carted away on my back as I left. I’ll never understand why my mom had to suffer through being widowed twice and then spend the last 9 years of her life slipping away into the arms of Alzheimer’s. I also will never understand why my soul longs for friendship and camaraderie and brotherhood, yet often finds walls and mistrust and angst. I will never understand…
We all go through struggles and difficult times; some deep and dark, and many that take a long time to work through. I have had my share and I’m sure there are more ahead for me. In our frailness we rarely understand these times and we begin to lose hope and doubt that our faith is strong enough to get us through. The fact is, we have all fallen away at one time or another to one degree or another. Some may hide it better than others but bravado is not bravery. We have all been like Thomas, needing to not just see the wounds but touch the scars…but still finding it difficult to believe. And we have all been like Peter eagerly stepping out onto the crashing waves only to find ourselves sinking in a whirlpool of fear and confusion. Sometimes all we can do is say over and over again, “I know you’re there…I know you’re working…please hurry.”
When belief is gone and despair is crushing and faith is all but lost, even when we can’t muster the strength to cry out, there will still be a Hand reaching out to save us. There will still be a scar to touch and One who understands all the whys. He has always been there for me in those times…He’ll be there for you too, just hold on.
Recently I have been having a recurring dream or vision. Not as profound as an aircraft carrier or a great hall of gold, but gentler, more of an impression. I am on the edge of an endless open field, just along the tree line looking out toward the horizon. The old untended field is littered here and there with nearly ripe grains from years gone by and wild flowers of every kind dancing among the grasses. Scattered throughout are large spreading maple trees in full fall color providing shade from the late summer heat and rest for weary wanderers. The wood behind me is dark and foreboding, much like Fangorn Forest as depicted in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings – dark and gnarled and dank. I have just come out of the forest and am looking out across the vast plains ahead of me, wanting so badly to run out into the gentle breezes rippling over the grasses but ever so frightened of what may be hidden beneath the beckoning surface. Maybe if I’m quick enough I can make it to one of the nearer trees before whatever lurks takes hold of me.
When my kids were young I would hold their hands as we crossed the street or in large crowds or anytime they felt afraid. If I sensed that something just wasn’t right and I was unsure or uncomfortable I would pick them up and hold them close. Sometimes I would carry them on my shoulders so they could have a better view of what was going on around them. Then, when we would get to a playground or home or someplace I knew was safe I would loosen my grip and let them run and play and explore. I’ve come to think of the Good Lord in much the same way. When hard times come, He slips his hand around ours and he holds it tight. Sometimes He carries us on His shoulders so that we can see what is around us and then there are times when He wraps us in his arms because we are sad or frightened. Then, when all about is safe and secure, he releases His grip and lets us run and explore, always with a watchful eye. Through all of my pain and struggle, victories and defeats, joys and sorrows, He has been right there holding my hand and calming my fears. Now I find myself on the edge of a vast clearing and He is encouraging me to run!
Fearful Follower, Faithful Friend (part one)
A Radical In A Tree: From his vantage point perched high upon the tree he could see the world. He could see the sun being covered thick dark clouds casting shadows and gloom over the land. He could see the animals in the fields huddling in crevices or thickets seeking shelter from the darkness. He could see the city seeming to slide down the hillside as the buildings clung to the stony ground. There in the midst of the city on the hill he could see the king’s palace where just a few hours before he had been in a meeting with the city officials wondering what they ought to do about the radicals stirring up trouble in the streets.
From that tree, which was itself on a hill a bit above the city, he could see people on their way here or there. Some were headed away having completed their work for the day or their business in the city. Others were coming nearer, curious about the commotion that had just taken place along the streets and upon the hill where his tree stood. Still others were very close, nearly at the roots of his old tree, peering up at him trying to see but unable understand why this radical was up a tree. Then there were those who were on their knees weeping, wrapped in each other’s arms that brought no comfort, unable to look up, knowing what and who they’d see – not some radical but one of their own…their very own. If he could have he would have reached down from where he was and wiped their tears away and calmed their fears but he loved them all too much to do that. He knew why he was up a tree and that he would not be there long so he steeled his heart against the sights and sounds and endured the pain.
He was not alone on the mount, there were two other men in two other trees on either side of him, one just sneered but the other was pleading. He had watched as these two fought and struggled against their captors. They had screamed and bellowed and hurled insults and begged for mercy to no avail. They had been treed and he knew he was soon facing the same fate. He resolved not to fight, instead climbing the tree himself. This had left many of the people both bewildered and amazed but none so much as the man on his right pleading, “Remember me”. He would not forget.
As the sky grew darker and the people scattered fearing the foulness in the air, he found there was nothing else he could do upon the tree. He had gotten himself into a position from which there was no turning back and he would not have done anything differently anyway. He knew the pain would be worth the reward. Though many could not understand at that moment what was happening he knew that one day they would. There was a war raging that none of them could see and this was the only way to win. So with his last ounce of courage and his last bit of strength he stood out on a branch and stretched his arms our as far as they could reach. He looked out over the people and the city and across all times and screamed, “It…is…finished!” and let himself go.
Fearful Follower, Faithful Friend (part two)
A Savior in a Cellar: Where he went no one was quite sure. Some said his final words were just the mutterings of a man who had finally given up. Others, citing the earthquake and the darkness, had a suspicion that there was far more to the cry, “it…is…finished!” Those who followed him knew it was much more and believed he had come to save them but could not understand how what they had just witnessed became salvation…it looked much more like defeat with the one they believed to be their savior now buried in a cellar.
The fact is that salvation had just been purchased and his life had been the price. For three days he had been about the business of providing a way for all to find the Kingdom. The keys were now in his hands and the prison doors were opened to those who had been held captive for so long. Now, through him, all had been given the opportunity to approach the throne of Grace and find salvation for their souls and spend eternity in his Father’s Kingdom. Those who had followed him would understand very soon and would be charged with carrying this good news to the world that they knew. That good news would eventually reach across time to every soul, offering forgiveness and granting salvation to all who would believe.
What he had just accomplished in three short days was no small feat but there were a few things he had left to do before he went to his Father’s house. Strolling along the path that lead to where his body had been laid he came upon a woman who was very much in a hurry and weeping as she ran. He asked her what was going on and, thinking he was a gardener, she begged him to tell if he knew where the body of their Lord had been taken. She was distraught beyond words but managed to tell him all that had happened over the last week – about the man who had died in the tree and how the tomb they had sealed him in was now open and empty. When he could bear no more of her sorrow, he stooped to look into the woman’s eyes and said, “Mary…”
Immediately, in amazement and overwhelming joy, she leaped up with arms outstretched, rushing to embrace him. He stepped back and pleaded with her not to touch him since he had not been to his Father’s house yet. She was quick to believe and understand what had just happened and was filled with a joy mixed with peace that could not be described. He asked her to hurry along and tell his followers all she had seen and heard – that he was alive and well and would see them all very soon. Taking one last look at his loving eyes, she sped on as if the very wind were carrying her with her feet barely touching the ground. He watched her as she ran knowing that she was the first messenger of the good news that their Savior was no longer in the cellar…she had seen him and spoken to him…he was ALIVE!
Fearful Follower, Faithful Friend (part three)
A King with Scars: They had all heard the news by now. Some had even seen the grave cloths and the empty cellar. And they had all heard Mary tell her story over and over again. Then they had been there that first night when he had walked right through a locked door and visited with them. They were surprised and overjoyed at the sight of him and in order to dismiss any doubt he revealed the scars that remained in his hands and feet and side – healed now but still visible and touchable. There could be no mistaking that this was indeed their savior.
After he had calmed their excitement he told them that just as he had been about the work of his Father that he was sending them out to do the same work and with one breath he gave them all a portion of the same power that he had to heal and forgive. They were now to be his representatives to the world. Of course, most had really no idea what that all meant at that moment but they did know that they had been changed and that the one that they had been following was alive and still their leader…and their Lord.
I was not there when all this had happened. I had been one of the first of his followers to scatter that fateful night in the garden when the soldiers came and took him. That whole night had been very strange. The lot of us had dinner together and he had told us many things about what was going to happen very soon. He had said that one of us would betray him and that Peter…even Peter…would deny him before the night was over. I was frightened and confused. How could any of these things be? He was our Lord and the Savior of our people. After supper we had gone out to the garden and waited while he and the others went further on to watch and pray. When I saw the soldiers coming and Judas among them I knew that the words he had spoken at the table that night were true. I confess, I was overcome with fear that I might be caught too…so I fled. The next day I watched from a distance as the radical, as they called him, climbed onto the tree and the words, “it…is…finished!” rang loudly in my ears. And again, I fled.
A couple of days later, I heard people talking about how the women had found the cellar empty and that Mary had actually spoken to him in the garden. He had told us to wait for him and that he would see us all soon. I could not believe it…it could not possibly be true. Wanting to go to where all the brothers were waiting but still fearful of being caught, I stayed hiding – how I wish I had had the courage to go. I could hear the commotion in the house but had seen no one enter. Later I heard that he had shown up right in the midst of them. The next day I went to the house where he had been and found the brothers and women still enamored and still talking. They told me all that had happened and the mission that the Lord had given them. I wanted to believe but just could not wrap my mind around all that had happened. No, it could not be true. I had seen him die in the tree. I watched as they wrapped his body and brought him to the cellar and sealed it. Dead men do not roll stones away.
Many days went by and while the brothers were still talking about him and their new mission, I was still in doubt. Had I missed it all – too afraid for my own life to be concerned with His? After dinner one night we were all just sitting around and talking when there, seemingly out of thin air, he appeared. The others immediately jumped up, excited to see him again and have their conviction once again strengthened. He calmed them down and made his way to where I was sitting and then, as if he had come that night just to see me, he bid me touch his hands and the scar in his side. I did as he asked touching first his hands, palm and backside, and then the deep scar in his side. I was undone…it was him…he was alive! Then he penetrated my eyes with his and said with a smile, “stop doubting…and believe!”
“My Lord and my God!” I said…and never doubted him again.
I love the fall – windy, rainy, cool and crisp with the autumn smell of a hot summer day giving in to the cold winter night. I remember growing up on the farm with the fields of dried grasses bordered with trees bursting forth in a kaleidoscope of orange and red and gold and brown. The geese heading south overhead squawking their sad goodbye as they drift on by is a sure sign that cooler days are coming.
One of my most favorite memories from when I was a kid was my mom either singing or humming a little tune in the fall each year. I thought that it must be her favorite song since she sang it so much and now, even at 46 years old, that song still runs through my head this time of year. I even find myself singing it when no one is around, but I prefer to remember the sound of mom’s voice as I hum along…
Come little leaves said the wind one day
Come over the meadow with me and play
Put on your dresses of red and gold
Summer is gone and the days grow cold
Soon as the leaves heard the wind’s loud call
Down they came fluttering one and all
‘Ore the bright fields they danced and flew
Singing the sweet little songs they knew
This little song has been running through my mind nonstop this fall, it seems, in a melancholy, ‘I wish you could stay but I know you have to go’ kind of way. I wonder if my mom still hears this song as she looks out her bedroom window or if the rhymes have all flitted away like the leaves in the song. Alzheimer’s is a terrible disease and it has been heartbreaking to watch mom fading away. I don’t know why the Good Lord has chosen to bring her through this season on her way to the house he’s built for her, but one day the last leaf of memory will fall and she will be gone.
It is almost like he has been calling her home for the last nine years and each and every little memory has faded and fallen. From time to time a leaf will be picked up and marveled at for a moment or two and then it flutters back to the ground, never to be heard from again. Maybe it is his way of clearing out all of the struggle and heartache that mom has experienced so when she steps over the threshold of her new home there will be nothing but a future of peace and happiness and joy…that is my hope as I try to understand.
I just can’t get that song out of my mind…
Glimmers of Heaven
There could not be a more perfect place to watch the sun set. A cool spring evening with a hot cup of coffee in one hand and the other wrapped in the hand of the love of your life. There we sat as our kids skipped stones across the water, staring and the horizon wondering why we had ever left this place.
We’ve been gone from the Copper Country, Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula, for seven years now and still at times miss it terribly. Time keeps moving on, you change and the people around you change and sometimes there is no other choice but to move on with it and sometimes that means you move away. We still get back when we can and when we do we camp at the best place in all of Michigan to watch the sun set: Mclain State Park.
This park is full of memories for us. Full of monumental events that shaped the very core of who we are as a couple and a family, and smaller, quieter moments much like the finishing strokes on an artist’s masterpiece. I remember conversations about big things and whispers about nothing. I remember teaching Bible lessons to eager learners and learning life lessons in the process. I remember walking the length of the park with good friends as we played disc golf. I remember each of us taking turns with our toddlers on our shoulders or walking hand-in-hand beside them as they discovered new things and learned to love this park as we do. I remember tears, and laughter, joy and pain. I remember life at McLain’s…and it is a good one.
I suspect that many of you have such a place that means as much to you. Maybe a house, a hometown, or a city that centers you and tells you who you are and where you came from – and, more importantly, where you can go back to when you need reminding. The world we live in is big, busy, wild, and wonderous and it is easy to get caught up in and swept away by it all…far away from the truth that we know and the hope that we believe in: that Heaven is a real place and we are but sojourners here in this world. I believe those places that we call ‘special’ here are glimmers of that real place that our spirits recognize…and we long for.
Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. Psalm 73:25-26
I’d love to hear about the place that your heart is tied to…comment below if you’d like!
It was a very chilly 27 degrees here in the middle of Michigan this morning…the first real frost of the season. It kind of puts one in an autumn mood – like you want to go shuffling through piles of leaves as the cool breeze gently tugs on those still left on the trees or putting the garden beds to sleep before the blanket of white descends. I’ve pretty much finished the fall chores around the house so this morning was spent with a cup of coffee on the back deck as the sun dappled through the red and orange and yellow leaves as it rose from its resting place in the East. Not a bad way to spend some quiet time in the morning.
Just as this time of year makes me want to clean up the yard and rake some leaves and cuddle up close with loved ones, I also find myself reflecting on the weeks and months that have passed; sifting through memories, clearing cobwebs, and settling my spirit. As I’ve written before, this summer has had its share of mountain tops but also some deep valleys. It is these lowlands that take a bit more work to get through and often you are left without any answers.
One of my brothers passed away in July. When I was born in 1968 he was just finishing high school and then went off to Vietnam. Later, he married and had his own family so he and I did not really have the opportunity to interact as brothers would. What I do remember about him is the example that he set about what is important in life…and what isn’t. He had a wisdom born of experience and grounded in the belief that there was a God in heaven who loved us all and there was a price that was paid for our souls.
When Jesus tells us in Luke to “consider the cost of building a tower”, the question of the verse is not what ‘tower’ are you building, but are you willing to pay the price? And if you are, do you have what it takes to get it done? Most Christians I know want to bring honor and glory to the Lord. We want to do his will and please him but often we don’t realize that living for him means dying to self – that is the cost. Being willing to lay aside all that we are and hope to be so that when others look at us they see him. My brother paid that price. Everything I ever knew about him showed that he did his very best to put away his struggles and pains and sorrows so that those around him would be blessed. He did not wear his faith on his arm but there was a spark in his eye that let you know he believed. He was a man who laid down his life in many ways and he has left a legacy that points to the Lord.
It is my prayer that in some way I can be that kind of man…I don’t think I’m there yet…
“Which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and count the cost, whether he has enough to finish it.” (Luke 14:28)
Leaders Should be Followers
There comes a time when we all choose. I’m not talking about the choice of what we will wear today or what we want to be when we grow up, (some of us are not fortunate enough to have discovered that yet). These everyday choices are quite inconsequential when compared with the choice I am talking about. In fact, the choice I’m referring to has the power to shape each and every other choice we will ever make. This choice provides the backdrop or framework that determines the ‘why’ of every other option – it is the reason you do one thing or another; say this or that; go here or there. The implications of this choice have the potential to not only change your life but the lives of countless others whom you come in contact with each and every day.
The choice is in the form of a simple question: “Will I follow Jesus?”
I was raised in the Lutheran church which gave me a very solid understanding that there was one who was bigger, greater, and more powerful than I was. It gave me the foundational belief system of a loving God who sacrificed his only son for my sins through the cross and his resurrection. When I was thirteen I accepted Jesus as my savior in a very simple prayer in a very simple place that to my spirit was an experience that I will never forget, but for many years I tried to hid because it did not fit within the orthodoxy of my traditional heritage. I did not make the experience my own till I was twenty. That was when I chose to be a follower.
That was when I chose to let Jesus be the standard bearer for all that I do. For the first few years after that I had all the symbols of a Christian: the worn out Bible, the t-shirts, the bumper stickers and music. Some of them rang true and some were the façade worn by someone who desperately wanted to be accepted. It took quite a while for me to realize that the choice to follow was not a one-time event when I was twenty years old, but a daily decision to keep following. A daily, sometimes moment-by-moment, succession of choices to be like Jesus and let him be seen through me. I have not always been successful at this.
A few years back there was a common phrase, WWJD or, “What Would Jesus Do?” (Yes, I had the bracelet), and while it describes what I’m writing about here, it really doesn’t go far enough. It is not enough to ask that question and find the answer; you must then choose to do it, and that is the tough part. You have to choose to follow and not assume you know better, or want something else, or need to be heard. I wish I were a better follower – perhaps then I could lead more people to Christ.
Fear is Not Fun
I have never understood Halloween. I just don’t get it. Let me set aside my religious beliefs for a moment and just ask, from a purely secular point of view, what’s the point? Where is the fun in seeing who can out-scare their neighbors with blood and guts, ghouls and goblins? Since when did pretend rotting corpses and moss covered grave stones become things that people willingly pay to see? I can’t remember any time when anyone I know or have heard about thought it would be exciting to visit the morgue and perform an autopsy. We watch the news and are horrified at shootings in our city streets and images of unspeakable horrors from those who embrace violence, yet go to the store to pick out the most vile and scary costumes and decorations meant to instill the very same fear we cringe at. From gory, blood strewn lawn ‘decorations’ to haunted houses to walking dead costumes, what are we thinking? With so much violence and brutality in the world these days, how is it that we have come to revel in it all? It all seems to be accepted simply because it is ‘pretend’ and ‘all in good fun’…I can tell you from experience that real fear is not fun.
This culture of gore has invaded our society in the guise of cuteness and fun. You can’t drive down the street without seeing spiders and bats hanging in trees and webs stretched across branches and porches. Windows house displays of smiling skeletons and open coffins with fanged monsters sitting upright with a twinkle in their eye. From the beginning of September through the end of October, you cannot walk into a store without a barrage of wares lining the shelves – candles, costumes, candy, spiders, bats, snakes, skeletons, fake webs, and the like, all vying for your attention and consumption. These are the things you will find in your local WalMart or Target or similar stores, but while some of the items may be pleasing to the eye, it is only a façade. I can guarantee you that if you walk into any costume shop you will not find the cute things you find elsewhere. Here you will find the true face of Halloween in the costumes meant to appear as real as any drive-by shooting or demon from hell. Along with all of the paraphernalia that goes along with it; Ouija boards, tarot cards, crystals, incense, crystal balls, creepy crawlies, and the like.
I just don’t understand how we as a society willingly glory in the gore and equate fear with fun. Good Lord, how have we let it come to this? Is it any wonder that violence is rampant and peace has become boring? I wish this season was just a bad dream and I could wake up on Thanksgiving morning with family and friends around to share a meal with, play some cards, watch some football and remember all that we have been given. Now that would be some great, good fun!
A Harvest Party!
I have never understood Halloween; from either a secular point of view or a religious one. I wrote yesterday about the secular part, but really can’t understand why Halloween has become accepted by many in the Christian community as well. I’m not saying that everyone in the Christian community buys into all goblins and goons and gore that are so celebrated, but should there not be a line drawn somewhere? Should not we as Christians stand up for what we know to be true? Christ came to bring life – not promote death. He came to bring peace – not instill fear. He came with the offer of salvation from the consequences of sin – not to revel in them.
Now I know some will say that Halloween is all in good fun as long as you don’t get into all of the evil stuff. The princess or super hero costume is fine and the jack-o-lantern as well as long as he has a happy face. Some churches even promote their own version of Halloween and call their celebration a ‘harvest party’ or an ‘autumn festival’. Of course the requirement is that costumes must be of Biblical characters and you won’t find any spiders or webs or bats or skeletons in closets. There will be candy and bobbing for apples and maybe even a pumpkin pie eating contest. We present a version of Halloween that is close enough to the world’s version so they feel welcome but not so close that we feel uncomfortable. I have seen some pretty big productions!
All of that is well and good but again, what is the point? Instead of providing an ‘alternative’ to the world’s Halloween, why can’t we just present the truth of a savior who came to conquer sin and death and provide a way out of hell and damnation? The answer to that question, as I’ve seen and heard many times, is numbers – no one would show up. All you end up doing is preaching to the choir while the lost are still lost. So in order to reach a few, we become like them and before too long the only difference is our celebration is cleaner, kinder, and safer. It is not just Halloween – think about it the next time you see Santa and his eight reindeer on the roof of a nativity scene or an Easter egg hunt in the church yard.
Have we become too like the world? Is not our truth better than their fantasy? Is it not our job just to present that truth and let the Holy Spirit draw the people in? How about we chuck all the syncretism and stand up for the Gospel. It is this truth that will set them free…not the harvest party in the fellowship hall.
This Is What Faith Is
It was a very chilly 18 degrees here in Michigan when I got up this morning and with the first snow of the season that came along yesterday it is really feeling like winter wants to settle in. This weather is rather early for us here in the Lower Peninsula but for my homeland in the Upper Peninsula, this is par for the course. I can remember often as a kid inches of snow covering well frozen jack-o-lanterns – Lake Superior can bring on a winter chill quite early some years!
For the next few weeks the weather will probably be a bit all over as the cool of autumn gives way to the crisp of winter. Seasonal changes can get pretty messy as we learn to let go of the past and deal with the present while preparing for the future. The winter coats get hung on the hooks with the boots beneath while the slickers and galoshes are stuffed away. The garage gets cleaned out from all of the honey-do projects for the cars, and the snow-blower and shovels replace the lawn mower and rakes at the front of the shed. And yes, there will be mud as the new snow falls on not quite frozen ground…and that mud will find its way into the house.
Finding a new normal is a process. You can’t let go and hold on at the same time…it just doesn’t work. Each and every season of our lives requires that we release what we have become comfortable with and grasp the next rung on the ladder – and then pull ourselves up. Sometimes it is not simply a step on a ladder but seems more like a leap from one swinging trapeze to another over a grand canyon with no net beneath. Letting go can be tough but if you don’t, eventually you’ll just stop swinging and be left hanging on the bar and lose your grip.
When it comes right down to it, there really is no change without some bit of unknown. Every change we are presented with has an inherent element of faith required. We do not really know the outcome of each and every choice we make or transition that comes our way. Will winter finally set in before Thanksgiving or wait till Christmas this year? Will I make it through training in my new job in time to be a benefit to the company? Will my car start this morning? Even the smallest things can make us doubt our choices. For example, on my first day of work at this new job I wore a white shirt and it was a bit chilly out so I put on my fleece jacket that I had not put on since last winter. When I took it off my crisp white button-down was covered in black lint from the inside of my fleece and I spent the day wondering if my new boss and co-workers noticed. I learned virtually nothing that first day! The next day came and then the next and I’m beginning to get a handle on things, but it is going to take some time and I am sure there will be some things along the way that trip me up…and that is OK.
This is what faith is…believing in what can be even though the evidence may say otherwise. I will learn this new job and learn it well even though it seems overwhelming right now. I will make it through this class even though I’m having trouble understanding it right now. I will get my honey-do list done, (at least started), before the snow flies for real this year. Winter will set in even though it is muddy and mucky and sloppy right now. The Good Lord will be there to catch me if…and when…I fall or fail.
Waking the Waiting
It began with the sound of gentle rain on the roof. At about one in the morning I stirred in my slumber and then woke as the soft pitter-patter became a drenching downpour. I listened as it washed away the winter grime and gave hope to dormant roots still sleeping in their garden beds. Perhaps it was a waking dream or just my imagination painting a picture, but I could see the water as it flowed through the soil caressing every root and tuber and bulb waiting in their beds for that first sign of spring. That is all they really need; just a taste of fresh water filtering through once frozen soils. That is all any of us really need.
As I laid in bed and listened I heard another sound. It was distant and deep like the sound of gravity, if gravity has a sound, causing you to quiet your soul, humble your heart, and bend your knees. Announced by bursts of brilliant light, the thunder rolled and rumbled, low and long and louder with each flash. The rain intensified, the lightening lit up the sky, and the clapping and crashing thunder neared. The storm was approaching and I lay in my bed quietly listening as the first storm of the season rolled in. I have been waiting for this for a very long and cold winter.
What began as a gentle sound that stirred my sleep soon became a cacophony of light, roaring thunder, whistling wind, and pouring rain. Gentle rumbles soon became bone shaking bellows in low tones, thudding and thumping through the walls, rattling the roof and windows as the waves of sound moved through the air. I imagine the ground shook as well, loosening the soil for the falling rain to seep in and nourish the thirsty roots. Each flash of light showed the way, each gust of wind a breath of fresh air, and every rumble breaking up the ground a little more as the water filled the empty spaces.
Soon the storm moved on to wake and water other waiting lands. I turned on my side and pulled the covers up under my chin and drifted back to sleep thinking…maybe dreaming…what it would be like to be in one of those garden beds that the storm had just rolled over. I can only imagine…
The Truth That We Know
Easter bunnies, like clowns, are creepy. The other day while shopping there was an Easter bunny wandering around the store peeking around aisles and hopping through the garden center and handing out candy to children. He was dressed in a tattered white furry costume with long bent pink ears and broken whiskers with big white teeth and little beady eyes that did not move but stared blankly in whatever direction the head was pointing – creepy. I assume this character was approved to be wandering the store since the assistant manager was tagging along after him watching his every move, which in a way is even more creepy.
He skipped by my son and I in the hardware department and snickered as he passed with his little manager friend close in tow wearing a sheepish grin – it’s giving me the willies just writing about it! After they had passed I leaned over to my son and asked what he thought would happen if a man dressed as Jesus were walking around instead handing out tracts and praying with people. Come to think of it, what would happen if instead of a fat man dressed in red with a white beard inviting children to sit on his lap and whisper in his hear what gifts they wanted at Christmas there was a mom and dad kneeling near a cradle with a baby boy inviting people to come and see what God had done.
How far we have strayed from the truth and followed the lies. It’s not hard to understand why…the lies come with candy and toys but the truth often comes with surrender and repentance – neither of which could be called fun. There is a tug of war taking place in our culture between truth and lie and believers are the rope. We are told by the world to stay in your little church – don’t come out, don’t teach or preach, and don’t share your faith because it offends. We are also told by our church leaders to go out into the fields for they are ripe for the harvest and then bring those you find back here to be saved. Both are wrong.
We are called to be salt and light in a dark and unsavory world. It is not up to the church leaders in the buildings to save the lost, but up to the Holy Spirit working in and through believers who are willing to shine and season their lives with hope, kindness, and love. The truth of salvation can be presented in simple and loving ways that are not offensive. It can be seen in simple acts of kindness or a glance that says “I understand” and “don’t be afraid”. It is found when you keep your promises and confidences and do your best to be honest. These are the kinds of things that people everywhere are longing for and willing to follow after if they are real. The world has given us characters for every holiday that entice us with sweet treats and pretty wrapped presents but after the excitement wears off they are nothing but hollow shells and figments of our vain imaginations. We don’t have to bluster and banter about the truth that we know – we need to be the truth that we know. And that truth will then become real to those who are seeking and they will be found.
Praying for Clear Skies
Rain usually makes me feel better…but not today…I don’t know if there is much that could. For the past eleven years my family and I have been watching as our mom was slowly robbed of everything by Alzheimer’s and one week ago I got the call that she had lost the battle. It happened a little before 3am last Saturday. I knew the call was coming – we had watched as over the final couple of weeks she went from some chest congestion and low grade fever to not waking, not eating, not drinking. I did my best during that time to keep everyone updated and prepared – that was my job as her DPOA. I made the gave the nursing staff permission to discontinue medications…I gave them permission to provide comfort measures only…I gave them permission to start her on Roxanol to ease her pain as she passed. I did all this and more fully knowing I was carrying out her wishes but also fully aware of where these choices would lead. They were not easy choices…
I spent the last week with my brothers and sisters planning her funeral and making sure everything was paid for and all of her wishes were honored…I think we did pretty well. There were no fights, everyone cooperated and shared the load and that was a real blessing and testament to what can be accomplished when other’s feelings are considered before your own, and doing what mom wanted was more important than what any one of us may have desired. My wife and I did not choose to spend our 20th anniversary at my mother’s funeral, but that is how it happened and I hope the Good Lord explains his timing someday.
It has been a very difficult week and today is really the first day I have had to sit down and ask, “what just happened…?” The rain is not helping. If I could curl up in a ball in the smallest corner behind a closed door today I would. That is how I feel at this moment. I’m not looking for a hug or words of encouragement – I’ve heard them all already and for someone who is not a hugger I’ve indulged too many this week from people I hardly know. Please understand, I appreciate all who spoke those words and gave those hugs and I know their sentiment was sincere, but I’m all hugged out and I can’t bear one more “I’m so sorry…” This is me right here and now – as real as it gets.
It started raining the night after the funeral and hasn’t stopped yet…I never thought I’d be praying for clear skies…
Like nearly all of the characters in Les Miserables, (with the exception of the Thenardier’s – the Lady and Master of the House – who know exactly who they are and don’t try to hide it), we are all prisoners. Not necessarily locked up in some jail cell with no escape, but chained none-the-less by a selfish nature and unrepentant heart. The only place freedom is found is in the truth telling and then in forgiveness.
Jean Valjean is bound by a secret no one knows but the Priest an inspector named Javer who is himself bound by legalistic rules and unforgiveness. Fantine is bound by circumstances brought on by a careless and reckless past spent seeking love but finding only self-contempt and humiliation. Marius hides his rich aristocratic childhood behind his longing to be accepted by the common people whom he identifies with. Eponine hides her love for Marius and jealousy of Cosette behind a tough-girl image. Enjolras is a fearless revolutionary idealist, fighting for a cause greater than himself but still blind to the realities that surround him. Cosette is bound the secrets of others and a past she does not remember but longs to understand. These are characters caught up in the same fallen world bound by the same corrupt human nature that many of us find ourselves trapped in. We identify with one of more of these people and want them to find freedom and rejoice when that finally happens. We are all 24601.
This story reminds me of who I was, who I am, and who I long to be…forgiven, free, and loved. I love this story because it does not hide the fact that the only place these longings can be found is in the grace and mercy of a loving God. It is all wrapped up in Valjean’s closing line, “to love another person is to see the face of God.” Real love is not bound by expectations, rules, or requirements. It is not used as a tool, given then taken away. It is not hidden out of fear that someone will know and others will see. It is not reserved only for the deserving. It does not live only in the light but seeks out those in darkness and despair. Love is a choice, given freely, expecting nothing. It is what fuels forgiveness, fosters hope, and empowers faith. Love is the motivation of an Almighty God working on behalf of his most favored creation. Love is an innocent man on a cross reaching out to all of us 24601’s who are bound, offering forgiveness and freedom.