Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Our Catcher Will Never Miss

Dear Friends,

If I could have run away and joined the circus as a little boy I would have been a lion tamer. I remember being in our large backyard on a hot summer day. I was strutting around in front of six stuffed tigers and lions sitting on cardboard boxes that I'd arranged in a circle around me. I had a kitchen chair to be used as a shield in case one tried to attack me and a whip that I cracked over their heads as I ordered them through their paces. While I showed no fear to the beasts, I was lucky to get out of there alive. I say that because my sister would have killed me if she'd found me messing with her stuffed animals.

When I was very young, my grandmother took me to the circus and I remember the most terrifying act was not the lion tamer in the big cage with the ferocious lions and tigers. It was the death-defying trapeze artists! I just knew that at any moment one of them would fall the 100 feet to the floor below. 

If you're a trapeze artist you're a “flyer” or a “catcher.” The flyer jumps off a platform while hanging from a swing. As he or she soars overhead, the catcher is hanging from his knees on another trapeze swing and he starts the downward arc. At an exact point, the flyer lets go of the swing and continues in the arc created by the momentum from the swing. Now, in a matter of milliseconds, gravity is going to take over and the flyer will start to fall to earth. But with split second timing, the catcher meets the flyer in mid-air. The catcher wraps his hands around the flyer's wrists and they both swing back to the platform. A one second delay means the difference between being safely caught or falling.  

I read an interview given by a trapeze artist who performed in a German circus. Here’s what the “flyer” said, “The public thinks I'm the star of the act, but the real star is Joseph the catcher. He has to be there with split-second precision and grab me out of the air. When I fly to Joseph I have to just simply stretch out my arms and wait for him to catch me. The worst thing I can do is to try to grab for him. I can do nothing but just stretch out my arms and have faith that he will meet me at the right moment and grab me.”

That last statement really caught my attention because that's the faith we need to have in God. We are all flying though life, but without trust in God, as soon as we start to fall we began flaying about, trying to grab hold of anything that we think will save us. We need to have faith that God will always meet us at the right moment and grab us to keep us from falling. 

Without trust in God, we can only trust in ourselves. So we control our life by grabbing tightly to whatever or whoever we can, to try and make it safe for us. But because we’re clutching and grabbing onto all the wrong things, we will always fail and fall. When we’re flying through life we need to simply relax and stretch out our arms and say, “Lord, I have faith in You. Catch me.”

Most trapeze artists work over a safety net. That's because, the catcher is not infallible. Sometimes the timing is off, there's a miss and they fall. But our Catcher is unfailing. We don't need a safety net. Our Catcher will never miss! When we're flying though life we can look down and see the pit that the devil has prepared for us for us to fall into. But, when we raise our eyes and look up, we see God with outstretched arms reaching for us. He is our Catcher who will never let us fall.

The last words Jesus said before breathing His final breath were, “Into Your hands, I commit My spirit.” That needs to be our daily prayer in order for us to submit to God and give the control over our life back to Him. 
Into Your hands Lord, I commit my spirit. Build my faith and my trust in You Lord, that I can just fly through life while reaching out to You in all my circumstances. Remind me Lord, that even in the scariest moments, You are waiting for me with outstretched arms – ready to grab me and hold me tight. Amen!

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Lighten up, Dudes!

Dear Friends,
And the Lord thy God doth mightily saith,
“Lighten up, dudes!”

I grew up in a church where the services were so solemn and serious that it was a sin to smile. On Easter Sunday, you were permitted a discrete reserved smile when you whispered, “Christ is Risen.” We had an expression of constipation on our countenance when we somberly greeted one another. We were the frozen chosen and we needed to lighten up.

There are times when it's appropriate to be serious – Lent is a meditative season of reflection as we assess our walk with the Lord and hold it up to His light for careful examination. There are times in our life when we are so filled with the joy of the Lord, that we just want to sing and dance. The Bible tells us that King David was so filled with joy that he worshiped the Lord by playfully dancing in the streets in his underwear. We also love our times of passionate worship, but to avoid scaring the horses and scarring the minds of young children, we might want to keep our pants on in public.

God-given pleasure, playfulness and a sense of humor will keep us young and alive. Did Jesus have a playful sense of humor? I can find no biblical evidence that He ever brought a confetti-filled pinata into the synagogue for the noon prayer service, but we can see the twinkle in His eye when he tells the rich young ruler that “it's easier for a camel to go through a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.”

Evangelical Christians have of late become very intense about our beliefs and doctrine. We wring our hands and lament over the state of our nation today while, “..the One whose throne is in Heaven sits laughing.” [Read Psalm 2:1-4]  And the One who sits on the throne would say, “Lighten up, dudes.”

I'm not saying that we need to change our doctrine or compromise the word of God. But non-believers often perceive us as being judgmental, mean, harsh, intolerant and unloving. They read about church scandals, the moral failures of religious leaders and the horrific pattern of child abuse in the Catholic church. Can we blame them for not wanting to come join our church and be like us? 

We have the life-giving message of the Gospel and we've used that as a weapon to pound down what we are against. We have experienced the radical grace of God and then extended shame and judgement to others. We have received unmerited forgiveness from God for the worst of our sins and then we’ve not forgiven others for the crime of committing an offence against us. And Jesus would say, “Lighten up, dudes..”

We shout scripture and point accusing fingers at sinners. Jesus was accused of hanging out with them. Our Lord was constantly criticized for enjoying life a little too much. He was attacked by the pharisees for going to feasts and banquets where He ate heartedly, drank wine and partied with sinners and loose women. [Read Luke 7:34,37-39] I can't party like Jesus. I'm becoming more aware of what I eat. I don't drink and a certain loved one frowns on my hanging out with loose women. But I wonder if I should look at how Jesus treated others to see what I can learn from Him. 

I wonder if perhaps we should take off the “pro-life” or “pro-choice” buttons and just label ourselves as “pro-women.” I wonder how we would be perceived as Christians if we let God deal with the sins of others and we were to just embrace gays and people struggling with their sexuality with the same dignity and love as we would with any of God's children. I wonder what we would say about immigration reform if we studied scripture and saw people through God's eyes instead of our politics. I wonder if we should banish condemnation back to the netherworld from where it came. I wonder what would happen in our nation if people saw Christians as joy-filled and not joyless. Peter said to “rejoice with joy” and I wonder what we would look like to the world if we actually did that. In fact, I wonder if maybe we should just start looking a little less like us and a little more like Jesus...

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Stations of Your Life

Dear Friends,

In Jerusalem they call it the via Delorosa (The Way of Sorrows), and in the 14th century, the church established devotional stations at various points to depict the events in the last hours of Jesus’ life as He carried the cross to the hill at Calvary. For those unable to travel to the Holy Land, churches created what they call the Stations of the Cross using paintings, plaques and sculptures. Nearly all Catholic churches have the Stations of the Cross and many of our California Missions have gardens where the Stations are depicted. But every Lent I walk the Stations at Saint Andrews Abbey. 

Here in the high desert, the fourteen Stations are not artistically arranged along a garden path but are scattered up a steep, rocky hill. There are no carefully tended flower beds. Wild sage and scrub brush dot the hillside.The sculptures are not carved by artists but are handmade and hammered together by the monks. Most Stations of the Cross in church and mission gardens have comfortable benches on which to sit, pray and meditate. In front of the Stations at the monastery, there is a flat rock to kneel on. On this steep rocky slope it can be snowy and bitter cold, windy or suffocatingly hot. It is always still. Always silent.

My Protestant problem with the fourteen traditional Stations is that only seven of them are biblical and the other seven are based on church legends and stories. I can't relate to the Station where “Veronica Wipes The Face Of Jesus” when I know that's just a nice story. As I walk the Stations, I typically hurry past that one, the ones showing Jesus falling and all the others that have no biblical foundation.

But something different is happening this Lent. The Stations are intended to foster thoughts, prayers and meditations as the images evoke a visceral connection with the suffering of our Lord. But today I'm experiencing a different response to these images. My thoughts are drawn to my own life experiences. And now I find that even the non-biblical “traditional” Stations have meaning for me.

Veronica’s compassion reminds me of the year when my family fell apart, my father died and God sent someone to take my hand and walk with me through life. The Stations that depict Jesus falling remind me of all the times that I've stumbled and "fallen" in my life and God would once again reach down and set me on my feet. These memories are my own “stations.” They are the snapshots of our past and, merged together, paint a portrait of our life and God's mercy and grace. No matter what the worst of our stations look like, God was there.

What are the stations of your life? Do your images depict the loss of a spouse or a child? A betrayal by a friend or loved one? Is there a station where God sent a “Veronica” to dry your tears in a time of hardship or grief? Was there a time when the burden was so heavy you couldn't bear to take another step with it and a “Simon” showed up unexpectedly to shoulder your “cross?”

My eyes have been opened and the suffering of Jesus Christ now transcends theology and has become more real to me than ever before. And, now I'm at the Station where Jesus is nailed to the cross. I’m overwhelmed with the realization that the worst things I have suffered in my life are nothing compared with the suffering that Jesus willingly took on for my sake. It was not the whip that caused my Lord and Savior the most pain. It was my sins.

I've been moving from Station to Station deep in reflective thought. Today, the trail seems so much narrower and steeper than it's been before. My feet slide and twist in the loose rocks. Sharp thorns from the Mesquite tear at my skin as I pass by. The desert environment is harsh and challenging, and I find that as I struggle along this steep rocky trail, it becomes the perfect metaphor for my life. And then I look up. At the highest point on this rocky hill – so much like the hill at Calvary – I see the broken body of Jesus hanging on the cross. 

Our journeys are different. Our life “stations” are different. But at some point, each one of us must raise our eyes from our own sorrows and look up. To see Jesus. Up there on the cross. For you.

+ + + + + + + 
The Stations of the Cross

On Good Friday in 1991, Pope John Paul II displeased some Catholics and delighted many Protestants by initiating a new biblically-based Stations of the Cross. While nearly all churches retain the beloved traditional version, Pope Benedict approved the new Biblical version for meditation and public celebration by Catholics in 2007. 

As Protestant believers, we might consider now taking, what has been a Catholic-only tradition, and incorporating the Biblical version of the Stations of the Cross into our own Good Friday devotions.

Pastor John
1. Jesus on the Mount of Olives (Luke 22:39-46)
2. Jesus, betrayed by Judas, is arrested (Luke 22:47-48)
3. Jesus is condemned by the Sanhedrin (Luke 22:66-71)
4. Peter denies Jesus (Luke 22:54-62)
1. Jesus is condemned to death5. Jesus is judged by Pilate (Luke 23:13-25)
6. Jesus is scourged and crowned with thorns (Luke 22:63-65; John 19:2-3)
2. Jesus takes up his cross7. Jesus takes up the cross (Mark 15:20)
3. Jesus falls for the first time
4. Jesus meets his mother
5. Jesus is helped by Simon the Cyrene to carry his cross8. Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus to carry his cross (Luke 23:26)
6. Veronica wipes the face of Jesus
7. Jesus falls for the second time
8. Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem9. Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem (Luke 23:27-31)
9. Jesus falls for the third time
10. Jesus is stripped of his garments
11. Jesus is nailed to the cross10. Jesus is crucified (Luke 23:33, 47)
11. Jesus promises his Kingdom to the good thief (Luke 23:33-34, 39-43)
12. Jesus on the cross, his mother and his disciple (John 19:25-27)
12. Jesus dies on the cross13. Jesus dies on the cross (Luke 23:44-46)
13. Jesus is taken down from the cross and given to his mother
14. Jesus is laid in the tomb14. Jesus is placed in the tomb (Luke 23:50-54)

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

A Lesson in Humility

Dear Friends,

Decades ago, as director of a men's ministry, I had prepared an insert for the Sunday bulletin in which I was encouraging the men to join me in a workday to help the widows in our church. My then-wife read it and told me that if the only way she could get anything done around our house was to become a widow, she'd be willing to give that a try. (I was smart enough to be able to penetrate this subtlety and discern that perhaps I wasn't doing enough to help her with the family chores.)

That Sunday afternoon, I was determined to redeem myself and asked what I could do to help so that she could just spend the afternoon with her book. She gave me her list and I strode confidently out the door to hunt, purchase and conquer. I was so proud of myself when I came back! I burst into the house and couldn't wait to tell her about returning the items to Sports Chalet and how I had to get pretty assertive with the manager before he would give us our money back. I told her about the hassle of getting the right cat food at Petco and how I'd prevailed. I'd found exactly what she needed at Linens-n-Things using the coupons and at Vons I was proud to say that I had gotten everything on her list. I even told her about ignoring the woman who was flirting with me in the produce section. Of course I was making myself sound like the world's best husband and when I finally ran out of things to boast about, I noticed that she was giving me one of her “disapproving looks.” I was still standing in the entryway and she was sitting on the couch and just staring up at me. There were a few moments of uncomfortable silence and then she said, “And so the entire time that you’ve done all this your zipper’s been down?”

God’s word tells us that pride goes before a fall and it does seem that just when we get caught up in our own magnificence, we so often experience a heavenly-sent smack-down. And as we mature in the Lord and these holy attitude adjustments continue to take place, we eventually progress to become the person God has created us to be. When I was a kid and came home my mother would always call out, “Is that you?” Today my answer would be, “Not yet but someday I will be.”

We are all works-in-progress and on our journey of spiritual growth, it is through the grace of God, we transition from “full-of-ourselves” to “full-of-God.” And it’s only when we find our God-revealed authentic self that our humility can be safely unveiled.

Humility has gotten a bad reputation these days. Our American culture has worked hard to infuse the younger generation with a sense of grandeur and self-esteem (self-love). We have promoted pride while demonizing humility and turned out what behavioral scientists and psychologists are calling the Narcissistic Generation. Our culture today has tilted toward an unhealthy focus on appearance, money, and fame and even many of our churches have attracted adherents by feeding those humanistic desires.

We need to get a grip on the reality of who we really are! To develop a grace-based understanding of Godly humility we need to first see that it’s not piously beating ourselves up for our fallen human nature. Humility embraces the contradictions, failures, and glories of our humanness. Humility is just an honest appraisal of who we are as we see our true self through the eyes of God. 

O people, the LORD has told you what is good, and this is what He requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God. [Micah 6:8] If the first two instructions are difficult, the third is particularly challenging. And then Paul adds a new requirement that really skewers our pride. Don't be selfish; don't try to impress others. Be humble, think of others as better than yourselves. Don't look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too.  [Philippians 2:3-4]

Humility keeps things in perspective. It helps us to understand that we are not exceptional. Like it or not, we are simply part of the human race. 
Lord, save me from thinking that I am better than others. Keep me from my tendency to impress others by glorifying myself. Help me to enjoy the praise I receive for my accomplishments and then to immediately empty that praise into the ocean of your love and give You all the glory. Help me to elevate the interests of others above my own and to manifest Your love and grace to those who You have brought to me. Lord, have mercy.  Amen.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

A Lesson in Forgiveness

Dear Friends,

The most important lesson I ever received in the concept of Christian forgiveness wasn’t in Sunday School. It was in a stable. And, I'm not talking about a metaphor for something real spiritual here. I'm talking about a real stable. I met Emile Avery about 30 years ago when I ran a horse stable in the Griffith Park area. No one called him Emile, not even his wife; he was just Avery. He ran the stable next to mine and we both trained horses and taught people how to ride. Avery was 75 years old, tough as nails and still rode every day. He was a grizzled old cowboy who had been a wrangler, western actor and stunt man in hundreds of the 1960's TV westerns and old movie westerns. 

And then one night he committed the unforgivable sin. I had a big thoroughbred which was parked in the corral right next to his house. The high-strung thoroughbred had gotten nervous that night and was making noise so Avery climbed over the fence and tied up my horse. That morning, as I read the note that Avery had left telling me why he had tied it up, I almost choked on my chew I was so mad. I was enraged. Furious. The cowboy code was that you never messed with another man's wife and you never messed with another man's horse (and I'm not sure those were necessarily in that order). 

I was a little different back in my cowboy days.  Between my boots and the top of my hat there was about 6'6" of tobacco chewing, cussin meanness. Ten gallon hat, blood-stained chaps from vet'en horses, manure crusted boots, shiny silver spurs. I was a believer but wasn't what you'd call “walking with the Lord” at that time in my life. 

I could hear some rattling around in his barn and I hollered, “Avery, get over here, you blankity old blank.” He came over to the fence and I cussed him out something fierce. I had every right to do so. It’s dangerous to tie up a horse like that and leave it. And when a horse is going wild in its stall, the last thing you would want to do is to just tie him up and leave him alone because he could panic, fall and asphyxiate himself. Avery knew I was right and said he was sorry, but there was no way I was going to let him off the hook and forgive him. I walked away with my parting words something about breaking his scrawny old neck if I ever saw him in my barn again. 

“Hey John...” he called. “Come here and wiggle my little finger.” I turned and saw he was standing right at the fence. His property was about three feet lower than mine and he was a short guy too. So his head was at about the height of my knees and he was reaching up and poking his old bony little finger through the chain link fence. I bellowed, “WHAT did you say?”

He said quietly, “Come here and shake my little finger so you'll forgive me.” I said, “Avery, you've gone crazy. I ain't shaken nothing of yours” and I turned to walk away again. “Hey John...come here...” I kept on walking and yelled back, “I've got to get back to work.” He said, "John, I'm going to just stand here until you come over and wiggle my little finger so I know you've forgiven me." 

I had students coming soon and I didn’t want them to see this guy sticking his little finger through the chainlink. I turned and stomped over to the fence. I reached down but it was too low. I kneeled down on one knee in the dried manure and wiggled that old man's finger. That grizzled old cowboy grinned up at me and I felt all the anger, resentment and bitterness drain out of me. I felt so silly wiggling his finger that I started to smile myself. And then, there we were – two cussed-mean cowboys grinning at each other with tears in our eyes. At that very moment I forgave him completely and the relationship was immediately restored.

It’s the way of the world to hold grudges and harbor unforgiveness, but it is the way of those forgiven by Christ to freely forgive others for the wrongs they have done to us. Avery and I talked about horses, not about faith, but I suspect that he knew Jesus Christ. He certainly knew the principles, importance and the power of forgiveness. He knew that if I'd walked away angry and unforgiving, our relationship would be forever changed. 

Is there someone you need to forgive? Someone's little finger you need to wiggle? Or are you the one who needs to poke your finger through the fence and ask for forgiveness?  No matter how scary that may seem, no matter how intimidating the person might be on the other side of the fence, through the power of God and the miracle of forgiveness, even the most stubborn of us can be brought to our knees and relationships can be healed. Amen?