It’s Not That Simple

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We’ve all seen them; the ones who come to church not looking or acting the way they once did. The smile is no longer there, and the amount of times you see them becomes less and less. And when you ask them where they’ve been lately, their response is typically the same, “I’ve just been busy.” But we really know what’s going on; they’re backsliding. Or so we think.

I need to let you as a reader know that I myself have been a “backslider” at one point in my life. When I was 18 years old I allowed myself to become disillusioned by thinking that somehow what my mother and father (who was also my pastor) had taught me was nothing more than a lie, and they were only trying to keep me from the real fun that life had to offer. So with a heavy dose of rebellion and a fair amount of anger towards God and religion, I left it all behind. Yes, I would completely have considered myself a backslider because of the fact that my attitude was that of, “I’m going to show you Dad! I hate this stupid religion! Don’t try and tell me what to do, you’ll get nowhere!” But how can we automatically assume that the people that we see less of in our church’s feel the same way I did when I backslid?

We only see what is happening on the outside and have no idea of the pain that this person may be dealing with. Could it be perhaps that their actions are only a cry for help? A way to finally be noticed, to understand that they are hurting and need a loving embrace? Or maybe just some time from a friend who can help heal their wounds? We have no idea. Oh but how foolishly we make our assumptions, somehow convincing ourselves that we understand all that is going on in their lives without even taking the time to try and love them.

While writing this I’m reminded of a man in the Bible named Zacchaeus. Everyone around him despised him. They didn’t care what his feelings were, or even what his needs may be. “And why?” you may wonder, because he didn’t care about them, or what their needs or feelings may be; he only stole from them. He oppressed the townspeople by over taxing them. So when the time came that Jesus was coming to town, and as the excitement and anticipation began building, no one even considered whether or not Zacchaeus may want to see Jesus as well. I don’t believe Zacchaeus had any false pretenses about meeting Jesus, he only wanted to see the healer. But what of the crowd? Why when they saw him struggling up a tree, willing to make a spectacle of himself, did they not make room for him? Couldn’t they see his desire? His need for the savior? No. They were blinded by their own anger and disappointment with him, and it was these emotions that kept them blind to the needs that were overwhelming Zacchaeus. But Jesus saw him! Up there in the tree, alone and hurting. The people were so blinded by their own emotions that even when Jesus called out to Zacchaeus they were confused and disappointed with his decision. “Why would you eat with him, a sinner?” they cried out with dismay. But Zacchaeus, already knowing his sin and shame replied, “I will give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody, I will repay back four times the amount.” What did Jesus have to say to such a response? He turned and spoke to the people of the city, the ones who didn’t allow themselves to really see Zacchaeus, and said, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:1-10).

The people of this town are no different than us. We look on with awe and admiration at those in the church who are doing well, and hold a good position in the church while taking little notice of those whose faces are seen less and less. And when a special speaker comes to our church, especially one who is used in the gifts of the spirit, we expect him to meet our needs first, and if there is any time left, minister to “the ones who don’t really care for the deep things of God”. We, like the town’s people, wouldn’t be able to understand it if the guest speaker only ministered to the one person who is the least deserving of it. We would murmur to one another, “if the minister only knew!” We would feel as if we had been cheated! “What about my needs, don’t you care God? And why him! He doesn’t care! Just look at him, he doesn’t even try to look or act holy anymore!” Oh how foolish we are. Oh how blind we have become by our own righteous pride. Did not Jesus say, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:31, 32 NIV)

Could it be that the ones who first need a change of heart is us? Maybe the beam in our own eye has prevented us from truly seeing the hurt all around us in churches? It has prevented us from seeing them with love and compassion, rendering us unable to minister to their needs. Could it be that God desires to use us but we are just too unwilling to change ourselves first? I leave you with this scripture. Then Jesus said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” (Matthew 9:37, 38 NIV)

When Did I Become A Religious Bigot?

Bigot: A person who is or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially: one who regards or treats the members of a group with hatred and intolerance.

I’ve recently been thinking about the famous speech given by Rev.Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. entitled, “I Have A Dream”. When Martin Luther gave that speech it shook the nation, maybe even the world, because of his boldness and for what the speech stood for. He spoke to a body of people, not just white people on how the blacks wish to be treated, or to black people on what their rights were, he spoke to us all. Common people, black and white, law makers and law enforcers; he spoke to everyone of us. He couldn’t just point a finger at the white people without telling his fellow brother to not allow hatred to be harbored in his heart. Nor could he just ask his fellow brother to forgive the whites for all the injustices; or how would the whites have been pricked in their hearts? With many words and with boldness, he asked us to love each other in spite of our differences.

While we now live in a free nation where we strive to show equal rights regardless of skin color; bigotry is still alive and well. It’s seen at election time when people of all races and ages begin choosing a side. Neighbor against neighbor, coworker against coworker, family member against family member. We began arguing with each other in hopes to change them to our political party. Each side believes that they are the ones who are right, and that everyone else is just ignorant. Each side feels so strongly about this that we can hardly bare to look at our neighbor if they have a sign in their front lawn supporting the “other guy”. Even driving down the road and seeing a bumper sticker supporting the “wrong guy” can set us off. Even worst though is the people on the radio and television showing support for their candidate and telling us why we should shouldn’t be voting for the “other guy”. Worst of all however is the candidates themselves! They try proving how right they are by showing how wrong the other candidate is, no matter if what they are saying is really all true or not.

When I look at religion today, I see much of the same things. While I do believe that we need religion and the structure it offers, I believe, over all, it has become a body of suffering people drunk on the pride of religious bigotry. When did religion become about; “if you don’t believe what I do, exactly as I do, I don’t have to really love you”? When did we start believing that God only really loves, cares, and listens to us when we are a part or our religion? When did we start believing that if people come to our church, and then stop for whatever reason, we don’t really have to show them the same love anymore because they have “walked away from truth”? Are we no different than the Jews of Paul’s time when Paul had to circumcise Timothy because of the religious bigotry all around him? See Acts 16. P

Paul, like Martin Luther, was ground breaking in his day. The peculiar thing is, it was for just about the same reasons. No one wanted to take the gospel to the Gentiles, even though Jesus told them in the great commission, “Go into all the world”! Why wouldn’t they? Religious bigotry! “We are better then them”. It took a man like Paul, a man unafraid of what the normal ways of thinking were to change a nation; to change the world! It took a man like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a black man in a white man’s country unafraid of the normal ways of thinking; to change his nation, to change the world! What will it take today to change this broken world in which we live? Who will it take? While we are not satisfied with how things are, we are comfortable with our situations; and many of those who are not comfortable find it easier not to change. We all want to be loved, but not many of us are looking to love those we can’t tolerate or understand. What then of Jesus while he was being beaten and hung on a cross by those who were guilty? What were his finial words, his final actions? “Father forgive them for they know not what they do”. Then he died.

Oh the hurt of this world in which we live! Oh the discomfort and pain of our fellow brothers and sisters all around us! How long will we remain drunk on our religious pride and bigotry? How long will we ignore the faces we see, and the hurt that is etched deep into their eyes? How long will we “stand for truth” when we have never really lived it to begin with? Our battle is not republican against democrat, or one religion against another; our battle is with the enemy of our souls, and he has us blinded by our own pride.

Please make no mistake; this is not a call to leave religion behind. It’s a call for healing and love. The real questions begging for answers can only be answered by you. Who will go? Who will stand alone if needs be? Who will love when others don’t know how?

1 John 4:20-21 If anyone says “I love God,” but keeps on hating his brother, he is a liar; for if he doesn’t love his brother who is right there in front of him, how can he love God whom he has never seen? And God himself has said that one must love not only God but his brother too.

Ephesians 6:12 For we are not fighting against people made of flesh and blood, but against persons without bodies—the evil rulers of the unseen world, those mighty satanic beings and great evil princes of darkness who rule this world; and against huge numbers of wicked spirits in the spirit world.

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The Death of a Dream

ImageWhen I was a child I remember having dreams of greatness. When asked what I would become when I got older I would quickly reply, “Spiderman!” I never thought this to be out of reach or just a childish notion. In my mind, Spiderman was real, and if he could climb walls, swing through the city, and catch all the bad guys, so could I. I had the bed sheets, undies, and matching pajamas to show my enthusiasm and give my support to the current Spiderman. After all, he deserved it! He had caught a lot of bad guys to get to where he was, and let’s face it, he was the coolest guy alive. But like most childhood dreams this one too faded as my understanding of the real world became more clear.

Joseph

I often think of Joseph and his big childhood dreams; dreams that were clearly given by God but skewed by thoughts of grandeur. When he approached his family and told them of the dream he had that one day they all would bow down to him, I don’t see him sharing it with a whole lot of humility. As a matter of fact, I kind of imagine Joseph seeing himself as a man inheriting rock star status. I mean let’s face it, God only gave him the glory part of the dream and none of the hardships it would require to achieve it. It didn’t take long for Joseph’s brothers to become disgusted with him and his perceived arrogance. God used Joseph’s brothers, and their disgust with him, to begin the long needed journey to become the man, that in time, would give God all the glory.

The Breaking of Joseph

If there’s one thing I can say for Joseph, he never gave up. His true journey to greatness began when his brothers’ distaste for him and his dreams finally caught up to him. They conspired together to kill Joseph but thought better of it and decided to sell him into slavery instead. A rich man named Potiphar, who knew nothing of Joseph and his dreams, bought him to be nothing more than a humble servant in his household. During this time, Potiphar’s troubled wife falsely accused him for trying to rape her. If we didn’t know the rest of the story it would be easy to think; “Joseph had done no wrong, he didn’t deserve this! Why would God allow this to happen to him?” The story only seems to get worse for Joseph and his dreams. He finds himself in prison due to the false accusations of Potiphar’s wife. Crazy thing is he doesn’t give up or lose hope. He still serves God and does all that he can do wherever he finds himself. Finally, he seems to get his lucky break. Two of Pharaoh’s men landed themselves in the same prison as Joseph. It truly seemed as if God was going to use this situation to rescue Joseph and get him back on his way to fulfilling the dream. But God had a different plan. Yes, God did use Joseph, He even gave him another dream in order to set things straight between the kings men, but God let Joseph keep on waiting.

Waiting

Many of us, at this point, would be ready to give up, throw in the towel, move on to a different calling or lifestyle. What made Joseph different? Why would he carry on and not lose sight of his dream or his relationship with God? Was he better than you and I? More spiritual perhaps? No, none of these things. He simply loved God more than his dreams, and this made him carry on even when all hope seemed lost.
Most of us dream of greatness with God. I believe most all of us would truly love to do a work that’s meaningful, enduring, and in the end makes a great difference for the kingdom of God. So why aren’t we? Why do we feel stuck, out of spiritual energy, or worse yet, forsaken by God? Has God moved on past us to find someone better and more qualified? Someone who really knows how to pray and read their Bible? Of course not. The Bible tells us in Philippians 1:6, “And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns.” This is a big promise that often time doesn’t seem to be fulfilled. But Moses had this to say about God and his promises; “He is a faithful God, who keeps his promise” (Deut. 7:9). So why then did Joseph have to wait? Why do we have to wait? Why does God allow us to come to the place where we feel abandoned and the dream to be lost? Two reasons…

Why We Wait

Peter has a good reminder for us when we begin to feel forsaken. “The Lord isn’t really being slow about his promise, as some people think. No, he is being patient for your sake. He does not want anyone to be destroyed, but wants everyone to repent” (2 Peter 3:9) The part about not being destroyed is one piece of the waiting process. Pride is always waiting just around the corner in our hearts to take the glory for ourselves, and make us feel as if we’ve become elevated above those around us. Remember; “God resists the proud, but gives grace unto the humble” (James 4:6).
The second reason we wait is due to weakness. We all deal with spiritual weakness on some level. God knows if we would have the strength to carry out the calling or not. Often times though, we are weak! This is why God said in Isaiah 40:31; “But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.” Waiting is a process of growth, and if we are to do anything meaningful for God, we all must go through a season of waiting!
In the end, Joseph did rule over the land, and his family did bow down to him and pay their homage. But Joseph wasn’t puffed up. They were there because they were hungry and Joseph had the provisions they needed. They bowed down, not because it was Joseph, but because God had given Joseph a position of power so that their lives could be spared. Look at what Joseph said to his brothers; “Don’t be upset, and don’t be angry with yourselves for selling me into this place. It was God who sent me here ahead of you to preserve your lives… So it was God who sent me here, not you! And He is the one who made me an adviser to Pharaoh” (Gen. 45:5,8).

You Are Not Forsaken, Or Forgotten

The Bible assures us that even while Joseph was waiting, and maybe even feeling forsaken, he was not alone. “And the Lord was with Joseph, so he succeeded in everything he did” (Gen 39:2). I don’t believe for a moment that Joseph felt like he was always succeeding, or that the Lord was always with him, but he was. So what’s the real story of Joseph?…
He never gave up!

Feeling Trapped?

IMG_3173Often times, “feeling trapped” is a term used in place of “I just don’t really want to do what it takes to change the situation I’m in”. Don’t get confused here, I’m not implying that we’re not uncomfortable or may not even despise the situation; I’m simply saying that no matter how much we may be disgusted with the present situation, we just really don’t want to make ourselves even more uncomfortable than what we already are. It’s like the worker that greets you as you enter the front door of Walmart. His or her name tag states, “Hello My Name Is – How May I Help You?” To whom is this statement being made? It’s both for you, and for themselves. It lets both parties know identity, and purpose. When the worker takes the name tag off at the end of their shift not only does their purpose change, but to the rest of us, their identity as we knew it is lost. They just become another face in the crowd.

Why Are You Trapped?

     You and I may despise our situation, but this is what we’ve grown accustomed to living in. It has shaped who we are both to us and to the others around us. It instructs others on how to view us because of what is constantly being portrayed through our actions and our words. Our situation often times dominates our conversations and in turn effects the way we are towards friends and family. It screens out, “Hello, My Name Is – And I’m Depressed, Angry, Full Of Sorrow, Disappointed… etc”. Most of us may not like our situation, but we just don’t even know who we would be without our sorrow. We’ve just lived with it for so long that that’s all we really know of ourselves. Yes, we hate it but let’s face it, we just don’t trust God. “What will He do if I let go of the sorrow? Will He still repay the one that hurt me if I forgive?” What we are really saying is that God is not really good and certainly not a rewarder of them who seek Him as stated in Hebrews 11:6. We have believed a lie and therefore we are trapped!

How To Get Out

     So how do we get out of this trap? Well, for starters, we have to take the Bible at it’s word. Sure, this can be tough when we feel like God Himself has let us down, but we absolutely must give it a try. The Bible tells us in John 8:32 that the Truth will set you free, and remember, freedom is what we are seeking. Did you know that Jesus tells us that when we are weak then He is strong (2 Cor 13:9)? It’s hard to believe, I know. To us, it seems that when we are weak, He has failed us. Why choose weakness? Why not choose to let us be strong, self-satisfied, or self-confident? It’s because these things come from self and self will always lead us down the wrong path. Paul said about himself, “I know that good doesn’t dwell in me” (Romans 7:18). You and I may find some inner-strength for the road ahead and maybe even enough to conquer one or two troubles in our lives; however, in the end, troubles will arise that we just don’t have the strength for. “But I just can’t trust God! He hasn’t been there for me when I needed Him most!” Or, “I have done so many things wrong that He just won’t help me anymore.” Neither of these are true no matter how much it may feel like it. The real fact is that we choose to believe these things even though they are false.

God will help you but first you must learn to trust Him. “Then Jesus said, ‘Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light’ (Matthew 11:28-30)”. You and I are not trapped by our situation; we are trapped by unbelief and fear. Our attitude is a choice we have made for ourselves, we have chosen that name tag. Not God! Not the one who hurt us! We have chosen our misery and to stay lost in it. Yes, even if the one who is hurting us is still in our lives. You CAN trade in that name tag, but are YOU willing to trust in Jesus and His ability to heal you?

Perfect Love Casts Out All Fear

When I look at the church today I’m overwhelmed by the amount of people dealing with the destructive emotions of guilt and condemnation. We are looking to the past, others relationships with God, or the latest self-help book to answer our questions. We’ve tried prayer, fasting, and Bible reading but yet we feel no closer to God than when we first began our journey. We’re exhausted by the fight! At times, we seem to do good for awhile, telling ourselves we’ve made it up a few rungs on the latter or steps on the staircase. Only to find ourselves lying flat on our backs by something that came out of nowhere. How can we ever have something worth being proud of in this relationship with God when all we can see are the steps we’ve accumulated forward are only taken back with just one wrong move? Why fight when the fight gets me nowhere?
It’s all these destructive ways of thinking that have us beaten down and starving. Until we can truly understand the way God views us, it’ll be almost impossible to view Him in a way that will bring us closer to Him. We can no longer wait for the next big thing to deliver us out of our self created darkness. The Bible states, “Today is the day of salvation”. How long will we be cumbered down with these heavy burdens that God never intended for us to carry? Look at the sweet soothing words Jesus said to you and I, the hurting and struggling. “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30 KJV).
God’s unrelenting, unwavering, and never failing love for you and I is what is going to set us free from all fear and doubt. It will lead and guide us into a discovery of the depths of Christ that we thought were only reserved for those who somehow could please God more perfectly than we ever could. It is His perfect love for you and I that will cast out all of our fears. His perfect love for you I will prove we too can please Him perfectly, and ultimately, His love will revel the beautiful plans He has for our lives.
Let these words that John wrote about God’s love help heal your soul. “We know how much God loves us, and we have put our trust in his love. God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them. And as we live in God, our love grows more perfect. So we will not be afraid on the day of judgment, but we can face him with confidence because we live like Jesus here in this world. Such love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love. We love each other because he loved us first” (1 John 4:16-19 NLT).
It’s time you and I were healed completely so that we can finally know His perfect love for us, and do His perfect will for our lives.

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A Letter to God, by Jeremy Painter

I’ve recently had the privilege to hear a minister by the name of Jeremy Painter preach a completely life-changing sermon. It was the manor in which he spoke that initially took me by surprise. He didn’t use the same style we’ve all grown so accustomed to; he simply walked to the podium, greeted the church, said his thank you’s to the pastor and his family, and than, proceeded to minister. He didn’t shout or pace back and forth, he simply read. As he read to us the letter he wrote in his desperation to God, tears began stream down my cheeks. It caused me to search my soul, and check my spirit for anything that may have crept in unaware.

After the reading was finished he just bowed his head and began to pray. The sermon had it’s desired effect; and as moths are drawn to a flame, we were all drawn to the alter.

As a minister of the Gospel myself, I couldn’t help but feel the need to share this incredible story, and emotional out-pouring in this letter to the Lord.

This quite long, but trust me when I tell you, it will be worth every moment you spend reading it. May this he wrote bless you as it has blessed me.

To God Omnipotent: In Praise to Him

Almighty God, it is difficult to pour out the contents my heart to Omniscience. You know my thoughts from afar. You are both the origin and the destination of what I say here. O Lord, know the feelings that I have toward you. I intend to worship you in what follows. And yet how well I know that my worship cannot add or detract from your nature: “From everlasting to everlasting, Thou Art God!” And I know full well that my worship of you says more about me than it could ever say about you. One who stands in front of a masterpiece doesn’t judge the masterpiece; its place is secure in the arts. It is my response to the masterpiece that is being judged. If I find it beautiful—then my taste is true; if I’m not impressed—the defect is in me, not in the masterpiece. Just so, as I stand before you and these witnesses, hear my worship and search me, O my God; and teach me the beauty of your ways—show me your glory!

Bear with me, Holy One, as I tell what is already for you a twice-told tale.

I once met a peculiar servant of yours. I had seen him around all my life, but always at church. He seemed to get younger as I grew older. The first time I saw him in church, I must’ve been about 4—and he seemed a wise old man. Now that I’m 36, he seems a child. But though I’d seen him for many years, we weren’t formally introduced until about 10 years ago. I still remember where I was when I learned his name. It was that time I’ve told you so often about when I was listening to the song, “Blessed Assurance” on a CD player at home.

I listen to it over and over so that I can be ready to sing it that night at church. But, as you know, I turn around and see my grandmother on the couch with her hands raised and tears ran all the way down and collected on her collarbone, saying, “Thank you Jesus, thank you Jesus.” I was hearing the rhythm of the song, the three-four beat, the modulation, the vocals. But she was hearing something else….

That’s when I first met him. This servant of yours was sitting next to her doing the same thing, and I wondered how he ever got in my house. I ask his name, and he says, “It depends on what language you’re speaking. In Greek my name is Epainos, in Italian: Elogio; German: Lob; Russian: Khvalit; the Chinese call me Zan-mei; the Cherokee: Galv-quododi. Among the Hebrew people, I have long been known as Hallel. You may call me ‘Praise.’ ”

I was used to seeing him only at church—this Praise. But, as big as you please, there he is with my grandmother, glorifying God in my living room. It was an odd place, O Righteous One, to find Praise. I had always interpreted these songs devotionally when I was at church—but always mechanically when I was anywhere else. But not grandma and Praise.

Not long after that, my wife comes home one day and says she saw this Praise in the mall. Laura says, “I was standing there in the Christian bookstore, and I saw a picture of a broken man, holding a giant nail in one hand and a hammer in the other, collapsed in despair in the merciful arms of the wounded Christ. Suddenly, I noticed that I wasn’t alone standing there; for he was standing next to me, making a scene, weeping for joy. I looked back at the picture and saw that I was the broken one in the picture, but I was in the arms of the Lamb of God. I started to cry, and couldn’t break away. I grew up believing in Jesus, but I always believed in him like I believe in planets and galaxies that I know exist but I haven’t seen. But here I MET him. Do you think it’s a coincidence that when I met him, this Praise was standing next to me?”

O God, I didn’t think it was a coincidence, but I still found it odd that he would show up in such a public place—even if it was at a Christian bookstore.

But then I remember taking Laura to dinner in Ocean Shores, WA, right at the edge of the world. The evening is warm and clear, and we were going to get to watch the sun set over the Pacific. Everything is perfect; seated by a window and a warm fire pit, the pianist plays Beethoven. In the kitchen, clanking dishes, glasses filling with ice, flames swooshing, soaring as the cook sautés, happy conversations harmonize with the piano. But then, Maker of heaven and earth, Praise comes in and asks to join our dinner. I tell him quietly, not wanting to hurt his feelings: “Three’s a crowd. And I’m on a date right now!”

He isn’t hurt; he seems to be on a mission; as if he had come here to witness a miracle—so he sits in the next booth over by himself and stares like a child out the window with excitement.

The time comes at last: the sapphire sun descends into the horizon, the waters of the shimmering sea seem to boil, and waves of heat dance over the ocean. Suddenly, the dishes stop clinking, the pianist stops playing, the conversations cease. All is silent. Praise stares breathless. Then, Excellent Lord, the last pink speck of the fiery chariot you made disappears behind the gates of night. The restaurant, filled with saints and sinners alike, erupt in applause. And Praise stands to his feet and shouts with hands upraised, “The Heavens declare the glory of God; the skies show his handiwork… Oh, Lord our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth! This night is fearfully and wonderfully made.”

I am conscious a few moments later that I too am clapping—and in my joy a sobering question occurs to me, “Whom would the atheist have to thank for such a moment like this?”

Praise starts showing up in all kinds of places after that. We begin to laugh together quite a bit. We smile at the moon as it changes faces night unto night. Once, we go into town one day and see a little boy losing a race with his melting ice cream cone. You should’ve seen his tongue furiously licking all around the cone. We watch a young man sitting with his friends. A girl that he liked steals a look at him. He blushes, and she smiles at this tribute to her beauty. We see two girls playing kickball on a quiet street, and then we listen to the beautiful sound of their mother’s voice echoing through the street, calling them home for dinner.

I once held my baby boy in my mere hands—the boy I almost lost at his birth. You, O Excellent Creator, gave him a blond streak through his dark hair and made his eyes China blue. I see Praise standing next to me and smiling as I now watch this same son who once strained his neck to look up at me—stand dead even with me and shake my hand with a man’s grip, speak to me with a man’s voice—and yet look at me with the same little boy-eyes. “O God, how great you are!” I hear Praise whispering behind me.

I’m not sure if it’s appropriate for Praise to come with me to the symphony. It’s not a gospel concert, after all. It’s Brahms. But he comes anyway. After the concert I ask him why he applauded the musicians so vigorously. I’ll never forget his answer: “What marvelous gifts God has given to man!”

I start to get more comfortable with Praise—I’ll admit I’m surprised that he’s interested in the smallest and seemingly insignificant details of my life. We start spending quite a bit of time in each other’s company. We are friends now.

It happens though one afternoon that I open up my email and read a note from the English chair. It reads, “Dear Professor Painter, I regret to inform you that one of your students, Denise, after a terrible car accident last night, has died. The family has informed us that forthcoming details concerning her funeral will be posted through this link. Sincerest condolences to you and her classmates.”

I’m crushed, Merciful One, by the news. She was only 21 and one course away from graduating with honors—her whole bright future lay out before her. And to think that I had only just spoken with her 3 days before. I remember that my last communication with her was about her grades. I pull up her document and read what I wrote. My remarks show no signs that I was informed by the knowledge that I was talking to a child on the brink of eternity. My last words were: “Your paper is well-written, but there are some research issues we’ll need to work through in the next few weeks.”

I hear the sudden and terrible crush of a high-speed collision; glass, metal, fire—a rolling mass of metal coming to a stop at the barricade; a sickening primal scream cut short by terrible death… a drunk staggering out of his car and running away.

And, O Man of Sorrows, Acquainted with Grief, I thought of my puny words, “There are some research issues we’ll need to work through in the next few weeks.” What do such words about such trifles mean in the ocean of eternity?

I hear a knock on my office door. It was Praise. I don’t answer. Two days later, I hear the knock again. I let him in, but I have nothing to say to him—and I thought I had finally found a place where he doesn’t belong. I tell him that this is no time for praise.

I remember Emily Dickenson’s words: “The bustle in the house, the morning after death / is one of life’s greatest solemnities. / The sweeping up the heart / and putting love away / until it will be used again in eternity” rings in mind. And so I busy myself with menial tasks in hopes that my mind won’t have time to ask what this pain and suffering means for my belief in a good God.

O Lord, I tell you truly—you know my heart—I didn’t reject you, but—believing that the other side should have its day in court—I decide it’s Pain’s turn to have the floor in my life. Pain must be allowed to speak unfettered. Pain and Praise—2 different voices, 2 advocates for 2 different sides. One an evangelist for you, O Son of Man; the other an evangelist for Chaos and Futility.

But Praise just sits there in my office and stays. The next morning he’s already there.

I sit down and ignore him. I ignore him for days on end; I’m in no mood for Praise. And every morning he’s still there when I come in. But after a few more days, another knock. I’m glad because I know it’s not Praise, who’s still sitting on my couch. I open the door, but this time it’s a dark figure, more fitting to my mood. I don’t need to ask his name, for I know that I’m looking at Death. I won’t let him in, and I close the door and stand against it. But then I hear him whisper from behind the threshold of my door: “Live, I’m coming!”

My knees turn to jelly and I shuffle over to my chair. I remember that Praise is still with me. “Why are you still here?” I shout. He had never said much outside of his exclamations of worship. But this time, Faithful Lord, he speaks to me,

“My longtime friend, do you think you’re the first to feel pain? You act as though pain is a private revelation of yours; you seem to believe that suffering has given you a glimpse of reality that escaped the saints and sages of the past. Can you really believe that Pain and Praise are two different voices? You’re assuming, in spite of all you know, that the saints of ages past have praised God only in the absence of Pain.

“But I was there when the Sweet Psalmist of Israel sang, ‘Eli, Eli, Lamma Sabachthani’; I was Job’s only friend when he said, ‘The Lord gives and takes away, blessed is the name of the Lord!’ Were you there when David cried with bitter tears, ‘God, why are you so far from helping me?’ I was there. I was with Israel by Chebar when they hung their harps on the willows and sang a lament for the ages. Nothing would’ve been heard from the Philippian jailhouse that night so long ago, if Pain had not brought Paul and Silas there. I came too, and our voices filled the night with praise. Heaven heard us.

“Jeremy, do you believe that the Holy Spirit inspired these dark passages; or did the Spirit only inspire passages that speak of the glories of God and the triumph of His people?”

You remember my answer, God. I say, “I believe the Spirit is the author of both—all Scripture is given by inspiration of the Spirit.”

Praise answers, “Then you believe that the Lord was saying to one and the same Lord, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ You see, there is this contradiction even in God’s own heart. Suffering and Praise are not two different voices. I am the voice of both. Have you forgotten that the symbol of our religion is the cross? Do you remember in John that the Son of God said He went to the cross to glorify His Father?

“I marvel that you think I don’t belong where there’s suffering! You have learned that I don’t just belong in church; you have learned that I don’t just belong in your church and your home. You have learned that I belong everywhere in life—but only so long as everything in life is okay! You’re okay with my presence when there are answers, but you imagine that I’m out of place when there are questions. But if this is all you’ve learned from me in the last ten years, you’ve learned nothing at all.

“Why aren’t you asking how it was that grandmother was singing and crying on your couch on that day you met me? Don’t you remember that your grandmother went to bed every night knowing that her husband wasn’t faithful to her? Her family knew and her friends and church knew, and she bore the shame everywhere she went.

“Don’t you remember that when she was 25 she stood over the grave of her own child and wept? You’ve all but forgotten that she nearly died during a nervous breakdown. Had she erased these things from her mind that day she sang, ‘Blessed Assurance, Jesus is mine?’ Do you imagine that the tears of joy she shed in your living room were not mixed with great sorrow. Could it be that she heard something in that song that you missed? Do you think it’s significant that she was worshipping to a song written by a blind woman who sings of “Visions of rapture bursting on her sight and of watching and waiting, looking above”? Your grandmother had learned that something could only be taken from her if it had graciously been given to her in the first place. One has had to be given health to know what sickness is. One has had to blessed with the sheer joy of being given a child to understand what it is to lose a child. Praise does not forget the pain: praise takes the pain and reinterprets it within a larger truth.

“What was it that your wife was seeing in that picture of the Wounded Christ, holding a broken man in his arms? What did she see that day that all the other shoppers missed? She saw the One who suffered—and yet she praised.

“I belong not only where you watch a sunset and kiss a child’s cheek; but I belong—and have always belonged—especially where there is sorrow. We don’t praise God in spite of pain; we praise Him, in large part, because it is only through pain that we truly experience what God experiences all the time. Have you never listened to Paul speak of the knowing God ‘in the fellowship of his suffering’? Have you forgotten that the ‘Lamb was slain from the foundation of the world’?”

Then Praise says, “Open your email.”

So, my Lord, I obediently open up my email. I click on the link, hoping to read details about Denise’s funeral. Her funeral had been held. Her brother had written her eulogy and posted it online. At the end of the eulogy, he wrote: “I have not been a believer like Denise was a believer. In fact, I had not believed in life after death. I was convinced that there was only one Omnipotence in the universe—and that was Death. But since she died, I have had the hardest time imagining that someone so full of life as Denise was could really be dead. In fact, I’m beginning to believe that she’s not. I’m deeply suspicious now that God is tempting me to faith. For me, death didn’t change what Denise means to me. Denise changed what death means to me!”

Like a weed in a dark forgotten prison, which, trying to solve the fearful enigma of its existence, turns towards a single ray of light that has somehow reached these depths, I turn to Praise, who is still on the couch. He’s sitting there; his hands uplifted—just as I had met him, next to my now departed grandmother, 10 years before. He keeps whispering, “Death is swallowed up in victory! Thank you Jesus, thank you Jesus.”

At once I understand I SAW Eternity the other night,

Like a great ring of pure and endless light,

All calm, as it was bright;

And round beneath it,

Time in hours, days, years

Driv’n by the spheres

Like a vast shadow mov’d ; in which the world

And all her train were hurl’d.

Yet some, who all this while did weep and sing,

And sing, and weep, soar’d up into the ring;

And I heard the voice of a Christ say,

“I am the day, soon to be born

I am the light before the morning

I am the night that will be dawn

I am the end and the beginning

I am the Alpha and Omega

The night and day, the first and last

“I am the light, soon to begin

I am the new hope in the morning

I am the darkness, soon to be light

I am the rising and the falling

“Illuminosa immortalis

sancta gloriosa, In aeterna.”

“Praise the Lord!
Praise God in his sanctuary;
praise him in his mighty heavens!

Praise him for his mighty deeds;
 praise him according to his excellent greatness!

Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp!

Praise him with tambourine and dance; praise him with strings and pipe!

Praise him with sounding cymbals; praise him with loud clashing cymbals!

Let everything that has breath praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!”

O Lord, you are altogether lovely! My wife does not put a bow in my daughter’s hair to make her pretty. She puts a bow in her hair because she’s pretty already. And I do not praise you before these people to make you praiseworthy. I praise you because you are always—and forevermore—worthy of my praise.

O Blessed One, I pray to you at this moment for the student suffering loss. You, O Great High Priest, are touched by the feelings of her infirmities. You, Suffering Servant, are acquainted with his grief. This student knows you better now than she knew you before the pain. And now may his voice, weighty with sorrow, be mingled with praise. “Now unto the One who is able to keep us from falling. Be the honor and the glory!” Thank you Blessed Father.

In Christ Jesus’ Name,

Amen.

October 2, 2012, Feast of the Guardian Angels

Florissant, MO.

My New Year’s Resolution/Revelation

Child holding megaphone Have you ever looked at life as you’re living it in the “right here and now” and thought, “I’m just not happy with the way things are, but, after this or that happens, I’m going to be so much happier, and everything is going to be just the way I’ve always wanted it to be?”  I’m sure if you were being honest with yourself you would be saying “yes” to this question. Funny thing is, once we get to the new place or get that new thing, the happiness only lasts so long and we find ourselves back in the unhappy state we were before. There we are looking and waiting for the next thing that is going to help us take that step and finally become the person we’ve always wanted to be.

I mean really, if we wanted more proof of this being true, just take a look at “New Year’s Resolutions”.  How many people use the starting of a new year as the solve-all benchmark of changing everything about themselves that they are unhappy with? Did you know that health clubs always have the greatest influx of new customers at the beginning of the year? But by the middle of the year more than eighty percent of the new members have ether dropped their membership, or just stopped coming all together.

Have you been successful with change?

     I’ve recently understood what it means to grasp, and hold onto change. Before God reviled the answer to me I often found myself frustrated and unsure of how to remain changed. I truly thought I had the answer and believed it was perfectly clear. My solution went something like this… First, I’ve got to be real sick of who I am or how I’ve let myself become. Then, I need to decide who or what I want to be, set some goals, and determine how I’m going to reach those goals. Once I’ve got all that down, it’s time for the major steps! Big step number one, go to God! Start out by telling Him what a failure I’ve been and how all that is going to change from here on out. Of course I need to make some big promises that I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to keep, because remember, I’m really sick of who I’ve become! Once that’s taken care of, it’s big step number two. Sit down with my family and drop the bomb of changes we are going to make, because let’s face it, we as a family have not been pleasing to God, so it’s time that we all “put the nose to the grind stone” and get the job done! That one always put a big damper on the family. I mean come on, I’ve been letting everyone get away with all this junk over the last year and now due to a “New Year’s Resolution” I’ve somehow magically become a super Christian that wants to please God all the time?! My family should understand and want get on board with the excitement and decide that they are as sick of their lives too, and want to please God as much as I do! Right? Sure… I could remain successful for a time, but in the end it almost always turned out the same, I would go back to my old way of living and let my family fall back into its old patterns. I hated the cycle! I had come to the conclusion that I just wasn’t a good Christian because I couldn’t keep up the promises I had made to God.

How to hold on to change

     The answer is simple. God wants us to let go of the things that are in our hands so we can take a hold of the things He is trying to offer us. It’s the understanding of “letting go” that has us troubled. I can promise you this, it’s easy to let go when we have a revelation of God’s love toward us. The first step of change is to grasp the simple concept that we can never earn more of God’s love. No matter how much we change our lives. He will always love us with a passionate love, one that desires us to be close to Him and Him to us. Nor can we lose out on God’s love because of how we have been living. It’s a revelation of His perfect love toward us that will begin to heal what’s been broken all along. 

“There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear: because fear has torment. He that fears is not made perfect in love.”                    –1John 4:18

Revelation makes all the difference.  Revelation is simply having an understanding that we didn’t have before. An understanding that drives us to change! There is no condemnation in revelation! The apostle John had this to say about condemnation, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. He that believes on him is not condemned:” (John 3:17-18). When you understand that He’s not beating you up because of the changes you need to make, it’s much easier to get started on making those changes.

How to make changes

     Revelation should always be the driving force behind every change. I remember when I used to beat myself up over not reading the Bible enough. I finally told God that I just really wanted to know Him more and I desired to understand Him in a way I never had before. He began to direct my attention toward the Bible, and for the first time, it truly spoke to me. As it spoke to me I received a revelation of His deep love toward me. It shook my world and changed me forever! It started with a hunger and ended with a revelation. This revelation of His love has not only changed me, but it has changed those who I have shared it with. And because of my willingness to share God’s revelation of love with others, He has given me revelations of others struggles and how to help them through them. It has resulted in being used in the gifts of the spirit and in other ways I could never have imagined.

The revelation will change those around you

     I used to beg God to use me in a powerful way but would always feel unworthy to be used. Until finally I got the revelation of His desire to use me, and to share His love for others. My family also began to respond to me and to my authority differently because I no longer felt like I had to hold it over their heads in order bring about the changes that needed to be accomplished. They could feel my excitement, love, and passion toward God. Not the weight of my authority. Revelation will always change the one who receives it, and in the end, the ones in their lives.

It’s revelation, not a new year’s resolution that will change your world and your family forever!