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!

Comedians like to start with the same line over and over again and put different spins on the punch line.  For instance, “Why did the chicken cross the road?” or “Knock-Knock” or “a guy walks into a bar…”.  We have learned from experience what will come, knowing that it has to be a lot funnier than “to get to the other side”.  Each new joke-teller has to at least do better than that.

It turns out that preachers and pastors have their own set of opening lines they use when getting together with one another.  Some of the favorites are, “So, how big is your church?”  “When did you become a Christian?” and “Where did you go to seminary?”  To that list I want to add another.  “I was sitting next to this guy on the airplane…”  What follows is typically an amazing, astonishing, and tear-inducing tale of how (with just the right blend of courage, wit, Scripture quoting, and Holy-Spirit anointing) the preacher was able to engage that fellow passenger in conversation, save his soul with a powerful presentation of the Gospel, and seal his eternal destiny.

Other preachers hear these tales and testimonies and feel simultaneously guilty over their uneventful recent plane flight and awestruck at the courage and skill of these preachers.

“Knock-Knock”

“Who’s there?”

“The best preacher in the room!!!”

But I am finding more and more than my best gift as a preacher might not be my speech at all.  It might just be a set of listening ears.

Here’s my plain plane story.

A fellow sits down next to me with earrings and tattoos and spiky hair and we make small talk and then find something to laugh at in the captain’s intercom address to the passengers.  Our captain wouldn’t stop talking!  It was as if he was going to give us a comprehensive description of the entire mechanical system of our 737 jet.  We learned more about wind tunnels and the air conditioning unit and the time spent by each crew of mechanics and, while it may have been kind of interesting in its own way, the captain was talking SO LOUDLY into his mic that we were kind of going crazy.

Anyway, my new friend was, not surprisingly, an artist.  He was in charge of setting up the Mini Cooper showrooms all across the country.  He had both mechanical skill and artistic acumen and was able to exercise them both in his job…which he loved.  After sharing some photos of our kids from our phones, another LOUD announcement came across the intercom that we would be having turbulence due to a storm, but we would miss the bulk of it and have a smooth landing.  The captain made a comment about how he was praying that storm would clear out and it did (Thanks, Captain, you just gave me an opportunity!)

You see, up to this point, I had not shared my name or my vocation, but then saw an opportunity to say, “Well, I am a pastor and talk to God for a living, but my prayers regarding the weather don’t typically seem to make much of a difference.” (Easter Sunday, 2013, at Refugio Beach the one clear exception!!)

A few minutes later as we were descending into Charlotte, NC, I was able to encourage my new friend about God.  It turns out his wife’s two sisters were committed Christians, although he and his wife did not go to church.  He went as a kid, but hadn’t as an adult because he felt that Christian people were too pushy.

“I get that.  I have been part of churches that did that kind of thing, and I know it can be a turn-off.  But most of those people’s intention is good, despite imperfect execution.  But, most important of all, Jesus is always good.  He is graceful and kind and instructs us in the best ways to live life.  And you know how we are about to land and those people on the runway will be there with their glowing sticks waving our plane into the terminal?  Well, maybe God just put me here to wave a glow-stick toward Jesus.  He changed my life.”

“Cool, man. Cool. It was good to meet you.”

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.”