We love our boxes.

Boxes keep people isolated and crumpled up.  And religious people can be experts at building boxes with labels to put people in.

A young woman wears something deemed inappropriate and a so-called “Christian” slaps a box on her labeled “tramp” or “whore” or “slut”, and then goes on their way.

You see, if I can place another person who is different from me in a box labeled “liberal” or “conservative” or “weird” or “snob”, etc. then I am off the hook.  I don’t have to do the hard and uncomfortable work of building an actual relationship.  Or, dare I say, loving that person!

But Jesus Christ is in the business of cutting boxes and breaking neck irons (I will explain that one below), and loving people for exactly who they are.

Three exchanges take place in Luke 5 and 6 that back this up.  First, the Pharisees ask Jesus why his disciples don’t fast (abstain from food for religious purposes).  Jesus explained that they didn’t fast because they were with the Bridegroom himself.  No asceticism was called for.  Celebration was more appropriate.  Later they would fast, Jesus told them, but now was not that time.

But wait!  The Pharisees didn’t understand that.  It was outside of their religious box.

A little while later, Jesus and his disciples were walking through a field on a Sabbath and they picked grain and ate it.  The Pharisees considered that a violation of the law.  Now technically it was not because they were poor travelers, and the law made that food available to them.  But for a recognized Rabbi, the action was outside of the religious box.

The third examples happens again on a Sabbath, but this time in a synagogue.  A man was there with a withered hand.  He could not open it and stretch it out.  The Pharisees (expert box-makers that they were) actually preferred Jesus not heal him rather than do a “work” on the Sabbath day.  Jesus told him to stand up in front of them all and “STRETCH OUT YOUR HAND”.

You and I are supposed to stand tall and strong and enjoy the freedom and liberty of a lively faith that Jesus paid a dear price for us to enjoy.  We should not be cramped and crumpled inside a box of our own or anyone else’s making.

When John Newton (the author of Amazing Grace) was a slave-ship captain, God was beginning to move on his heart.  On his last journey he saw that the slaves he was transporting were actually mothers and brothers and fathers and children.  They were people and they deserved dignity.  He felt an urge to unshackle them all but knew his crew would mutiny if he did.  He recognized one thing he could do, however.

Remove the neck irons.

One of the most undignified and cruel devices used on slaves was the neck iron.  It would prevent people from lifting their heads.  They had to walk and moved in a hunched over position.  John Newton ordered the neck irons removed.

Apparently, the Holy Spirit was stimulating Jesus-type action through John Newton.

Will you continue that work?

Start with yourself.  Lift up your hands, your heads, your life itself!  Stretch out to your full height!  You are free!  You have liberty.  Jesus has cut that box and removed those neck irons.

Now look around and see if anyone else needs a box cut open or a neck iron removed.

That’s what Jesus does.  Hallelujah!

Making Adjustments

May 22, 2014

For those of us who are basketball fans, has any phrase been more overused by losing coaches than “we have to make adjustments in the second half”? It is on page one of the yet-to-be-published “Helpful Phrases and Cliches for the Losing Team Handbook”.

And after the first games of the NBA’s Eastern and Western Conference finals, the losing coaches are scrambling to (yup) make adjustments.

For the Oklahoma City Thunder, who were defeated soundly by the San Antonio Spurs, the coaches have to figure out a way to open up scoring opportunities for more players and defend the paint. They lost their best interior defender (Serge Ibaka) to injury, who was also their third-leading scorer.

Likewise, the defending champion Miami Heat will have to make adjustments if they hope to defend their NBA title. The Indiana Pacers are MUCH bigger than the Miami Heat are and will continue to out-rebound, out-defend, and out-score the Heat if the Heat fail to make the right adjustments.

Truly, in sports, teams have to make adjustments or their dreams of achieving a championship will never, ever happen.

But being proactive and making appropriate adjustments is not limited to the job descriptions of NBA coaches. To have a happy and successful life, each individual must learn to make adjustments.

Life can come at us like a strong first half by the opposition in a basketball game. We can be sitting in the locker room at the midway point thinking to ourselves, “I don’t know if I have an answer for this. The forces against me are strong!”

This kind of opposition can be circumstantial (the hand we were dealt), it can be something of our own making (bad choices), it can be spiritual attack (Ephesians 6:12), or something else altogether.

The choice comes down to one thing…What are we going to do about it?!?!?!

With sports teams, you can often tell which team is going to win by their body language. Are they confident? Do they walk and talk with a little bit of swagger? If they do and the other team doesn’t, the game’s probably over already.

When life comes at you like Hibbert and West on a double team down low, you can either crawl into the fetal position or bust out!

You have been given the resources of the Word of God, the fellowship of the church, the wisdom of the saints and even this blog telling you to stand firm, get those knees dirty in prayer, remember that the devil is a liar from the beginning, and come out from that locker room ready TO HIT IT in the second half!

The ones that win always know how to make adjustments.

Does it Translate?

April 11, 2014

This morning I was texting with a friend from Latin America who is just learning English. I speak some Spanish, though, and we normally end up communicating in Spanish. This morning I got a text that read “Viernes. Yo canbiar sita. Tans”. I thought it meant something like “I can make the appointment on Friday” but I wasn’t sure cause it looks like there were some typos in the text message as well. That’s when I called upon my trusty friend…Google Translate.

The Amazing Google Translate (that’s what it should be called). With just a copy and paste to this invaluable app on my smartphone, I could confirm exactly what my friend was saying.

So I pasted it in and clicked “Go”. The translation came back, “Saturday. I canbiar appointment. Tans.”

I don’t think that’s what he was saying.

And wait a minute! Viernes doesn’t translate to Saturday! That’s one of the first things I learned in Mr. Zeiher’s 10th grade Spanish class. Viernes is Friday. No doubt about it. Had Google Translate made a mistake?

The horror!

Indeed, it had erred. The unflappable, infallible, Google Translate got lost in translation.

While I smugly made note that I was smarter than Google on this occasion, I realized that I have my own glitches when it comes to translating. One of my biggest glitches occurs when I spend quality time with God for a devotional and, yet, it fails to translate into actual love for another person.

You see, I love to be alone with God. I really enjoy solitary prayer walks, journaling at the beach, or a quiet room to read, pray, and worship. These are some of the best moments of my existence. But all too often, I return to the “real world” and get selfish or angry or impatient or…

What happened?

Something got lost in translation.

So as Google gets back to work on its Google Translate app to clear up its Viernes glitch, I am going to get back to work on translating the love I feel for God to real, practical love to those around me.

Lucky Faith

December 17, 2013

Kenda Creasy Dean and Ron Foster tell the story of an eight-year-old boy named Justin and his Cocker Spaniel puppy in their book, “The God-Bearing Life”.  Young Justin bolted out the door to catch the school bus and his new puppy, “Lucky”, slithered out the door right on his heels.  Once free from his confines, the puppy took off like a shot.  She narrowly missed becoming a puppy pancake when two cars sped by (apparently Lucky was an apt name).  Panicked, Justin sped after her, which just made the whole situation that much more fun for Lucky (have any of you experienced this scenario?).
Every time Justin got closer to catching her, Lucky bolted away again, tail wagging.  Pretty soon, Justin’s grandmother was out on the front lawn, wildly motioning Justin to get back home.  Justin protested: Bus or no bus, he had to catch his dog!  Yet his grandmother waved all the harder for him to come home.
Thinking she was pulling rank, Justin turned and ran home–with Lucky hot on his heels until both returned safely to the garage.
As I read this story, comparisons to the Christian faith flooded in.  I first had to ask myself, am I heading in the right direction?  Or am I running around in circles chasing the wrong thing?  Second, what (or who) am I directing people to?  Many people, and especially young people, are interested in “the quest” or “the journey” and are suspicious of anyone claiming to have THE answer.  They might even think that running around in circles with Lucky the dog is the meaning of life.  After all, it’s FUN!
But as a Christ-centered community of faith, we provide a safe haven of love, truth, and grace.  There IS a place to come home to. 
The last comparison is one I am wrestling with all the time…how to get people “inside the garage”?  By coercion?  By catch and grab?  By pushing people?  No.  By simply being the kind of people others will follow!
Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 11:1, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ”.  Christians must inherently follow the example of Christ in everything we do.  By doing so, we become the kinds of attractive people that get noticed on our streets, in our families, in the workplace, at school, etc.
In the story of Lucky and Justin, the boy reminds me somewhat of the Christians in the Ephesian church (Revelation 2).  When the going gets tough, these people just tighten their belts and boots and get going!  But while this was commendable, it missed the intended purpose of the whole thing.  The most important thing was to be loving God and practicing the deeds of that devotion…earnestly and fervently.  In the end, it’s that kind of love that gains a following.

The Diverted Track

September 4, 2013

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On Sunday, Ricky, a homeless friend of mine, pulled me aside to ask for a favor.  He had already begun drinking beers by 9:30 AM and was not going to attend church, but was hopeful I or the church could assist him with a train ticket to visit his father.  Ricky (not his real name) had spent the last 5 and 1/2 months in county jail for numerous violations of the law and had just been released the day before.  I told him that I would meet him on Tuesday morning and we would go figure it out together at the Amtrak station.

On the way to pick up Ricky I was mulling over what I had gotten myself into.  Was I really planning to shell out over a hundred bucks for a train ticket?  Did I even have the ability to do that?!?!?!  And was that even the right thing to do?  Ricky was always resourceful enough to buy his beer.  I imagined he got a monthly check from some source or another.  And I had seen him flying his flag on street corners a few times.  So, I determined to go in 50/50 with him.  That seemed like the best option. 

Track of Intention #1 was clear for departure…

So I picked him up at the appointed place and we made some smalltalk before I started in on some questions.  “So, Ricky, do you get a check every month?  I am a little worried about the price of this ticket.  You mentioned a roundtrip could cost $163 or so?  I don’t know if I can swing that.”  He explained that he didn’t have a monthly check.  No social security (He is only 30, but looks 45), and no disability. 

“My dad said that he would give me some money when I came up there to see him if I could just get there (to his aunt’s place…his mother had died).  So I could probably pay you back in a few weeks.” 

I replied, “Well, we might need to do that.  Maybe part of it anyway…”

Then Ricky started to describe more of his financial plight.  “I was trying to get on disability, but the people at the jail wouldn’t even prescribe medicine for me cuz they don’t think I’ve got anything wrong with me… other than the drinking.  But just look at me.  Do I look well?!?  Happy?  Good?  I am sad every single day.  I sure feel disabled.”

I told him that I could relate to the “cycle of abuse” that he was in the middle of.  Most people could at some level.  The “high’s” are great, but the “low’s” are much longer and completely draining, and we think the only way to get out of the low is to get high again…which just starts the cycle over again. 

The context also provided me an opportunity to speak about Jesus and his love being the only thing to rescue me from bad patterns and self-destructive thinking. 

“Rick, if all I ever listened to was the voices of people and the devil playing over and over in my head, I would be WAAAAAYYYYY worse off than you.  But I just learned to listen to the voice of Jesus that I read in the Bible and it changed everything.” 

I guess that’s when Jesus saw the perfect opportunity to continue speaking His voice.  As clear as day it rung out, though I know Ricky didn’t hear a peep.  “Give to everyone who asks you, and from one who takes your things, don’t ask for them back.” (Luke 6:30).  Wouldn’t you just know that I had preached a similar scripture on church that very last Sunday?  Luke 14 when Jesus talks to the Pharisees about taking the lowest seats at the banquet and inviting the poor, lame, and beggars…people who cannot repay.

The track I traveling on was getting diverted by The Great Conductor.

“Oh, and by the way Ricky, don’t worry about the money.  I am just glad you are going to get to see your Pop.”

We arrived at the train station and ended up getting a significantly discounted ticket at the train station.  Ain’t God Great?

We climbed back into the car for the ride home and Ricky noticed a song playing that he wanted to hear louder.  It was “I Can Only Imagine” by MercyMe. 

“I want to hear that song.  Will you turn it up?” 

I did so and we ended up humming and tapping along to it.  As the song came to a close, Ricky looked at me with a tear in his eye and said, “I know I am going to see Jesus come down and I am going to be with Him in Heaven.  I just know it.”

“I know you are too, Ricky, I know you are too.”

The Church as Family

May 23, 2013

The large organization was asking for more documentation from the small enterprise. Apparently, their bookkeeping reports had raised some eyebrows and now the pressure was mounting. Every phone call and email the small enterprise made to question and clarify was answered with doubles-speak, vagaries, or silence.
After filing their ledger sheet, all the young entrepreneurs could do was pray, wait for spring, and hope the official response from the institution was favorable.
Sound like a small business’s frustrated dealings with the IRS?
It’s not. It’s the story of a young pastor, his church bookkeeper, and their Missouri ministry.
This young pastor was feeling the pressure that many pastors feel to record ministry success with numbers and money. Oftentimes, if those are up to par in the overseeing organization’s assessment, then the ministry will be deemed a success. If they are not, the ministry will be deemed a failure.
But does God view ministry success this way?
If we study the life of Jesus, read passages like John 15, and seek to understand the nature, purpose, and mission of the church, the answer comes back as NO! God, our Heavenly Father, views successful Christians by one measurement: LOVE. John 15:12-17 records the words of Jesus… “12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command. 15 I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. 17 This is my command: Love each other.”
What this passage describes is deep, committed, sacrificial love. It’s most natural to reserve this level of love for families and the most intimate of relationships, which in fact is what the Church IS…a family! And love is its defining characteristic.
For when it’s all said and done, love is the only true measure of Christian success.