Remember

On the one-hundredth anniversary of the beginning of World War I, I offer the following sobering thoughts.

How naive were our grandparents and great-grandparents when they declared that the Great War was the war to end all wars. Unfortunately, we, as a species, seem incapable of learning the lessons of our own history. While it is tempting to place our hope in human potential and reason, the truth of human nature is, however, we are capable of inflicting such incredible horrors on each other. No race, religion, or nation has garnered a monopoly on violence or oppression. All are equal in their offense. The millions of lives lost to greed, power lust, distorted ideologies should astound and humble each one of us. I challenge everyone to study and learn the lessons of history. We must stop treating history as something trivial, boring, or tangential to “real education.” None of our scientific or technological advancements have proven capable of stemming the tide of innocents ground into the dust of human progress. Science provides many wonderful solutions to grave problems, but on the other hand has created more efficient tools for genocide. True understanding of the history and nature of humanity is vital to provide a warning to the next generation. A warning that should not be tempered but rather that warning should be demonstrated in all of its profound carnage. Humbly I ask that we take seriously the call to remember.

If I speak will anyone listen?

I have been told that my white privilege denies me the ability to speak to those of different backgrounds.

I have been told that my maleness prevents me from comprehending a woman’s plight.

My middle-class home eliminates me from knowing the impoverished.

My  American-ness disabuses any hope of entering into dialogue with those from other points on the compass.

I have been told repeatedly that because I am who I am that I have nothing to contribute to the discourse of finding solutions to troubles that have befallen us.

My God is judgmental.  My gender oppressive.  My ancestry is racist.  My tax bracket selfish.

If I do as so many public voices have shouted, I would but sit in a small corner and chant prayers asking for forgiveness from past sins.   Sins that I did not commit nor would I condone.  Sins that have been attached to me by people who do not know me.  Sins attached to me because of the very same blight that I’m accused of spreading.

What then am I to do?

Should I remain cowed and silent?  Should I give in to the darker impulses of my nature?

Neither accomplishes anything of any good.  To remain silent only deepens the resentment and separation.  To lash out only reinforces the label of hateful.

I am left only one recourse;  I must tell my story.

I am not who I appear to be.  I am a study of contradictions.  I am human weakness and strength.  I am lost and found.  I am native and immigrant.  Upwardly mobile and poor, intellectual and blue-collar.   I have dined with the upper-crust and borrowed for my next meal.  My eyes have witnessed the miracle of birth and the tragedy of death carried out before them.  I have been abused and have been callous to those around me.  I have fallen to lusts and been raised with Holy worship.

I am in a word human.

That one is a label which I will proudly wear.

As part of the human race, I ask indulgence.  Allow me to speak of my experience.  Give audience to my suffering and to my accomplishments.  Entertain my attempts to understand.  I will gladly reciprocate such courtesies.

Yet many still would deny my right to speak.

But, please grant me a moment to rearrange the narrative.

Beneath the Caucasian, Christian, Middle Class exterior of what most see me as is someone different.

I am the son of a father who is really a first generation American.  Though his grandfather arrived from Germany, my grandfather was a son of Germans not Americans.  My grandfather came during the great War rushing away from the horror that had overwhelmed Europe.  His father fought with the Polish Calvary and was captured by the Russians.   Escaping from a POW camp, he returned to Eastern Germany found his family and escaped, eventually to Oklahoma.  So yes I have an inkling of insight into what it means to be an immigrant.  I remember the older relatives huddling at family gatherings and muttering their conversations in German.  But the children were told “We are Americans, you speak English.”

I am also the son of a mother whose family traces their roots to the first peoples to arrive on this continent and the first to claim it for the English crown.   On one side such names as Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Humphrey Gilbert are found, on the other the bloodlines of Cherokee.   Linage is difficult to trace but her family escaped the Trail of Tears because my mother’s great-great grandfather known simply as Mr. Frank was not forced to sign onto tribal rolls.  Still, my connection to the oppression of the Native American’s is as proximate as most contemporary Americans.

The more pertinent truth of who I am, is that I know abuse, poverty, and vile up-close and personally.  True, I have never been arrested for DWB (driving while Black) and I point that out not to be flippant.  But as an eight, nine, or ten year old, the greater social problem of racism was something beyond my awareness.  What I did know was the sting of pain from hunger, from the blows delivered by my father’s hands, or from the insults and fists of those around me because of my family name.  The privilege of my supposed “whiteness” did not shelter me from calling a 1969 Dodge van home, or having the claw side of a hammer buried into my fore-arm.

Some of the greatest damage done by the sophomoric enterprise of labeling “privilege” is that if a person does not suffer the correct type of oppression their oppression does not count.  I have experienced the retort, “but you are white, therefore, even if you are poor you are still privileged.”  Trust me I did not feel privileged showing up at school in someone else’s discarded clothes.  I did not feel better than those who are classified as minorities when I saw their homes and compared some of the run down shanties in which I slept .

Oppression is relative, I grasp that concept.  I would not diminish any person’s suffering or trials.  All that I ask is that my own trials not be marginalized.  My experience can be educational for someone in some other sort of oppressed, suppressed, marginalized, or impoverished condition.

The scars on my body and in my psyche are real.  The pain and suffering was real.  My efforts to overcome were real.  I am not arrogant enough to suggest that I can share my story and everyone can learn from what I say.  But, perhaps, if I were allowed to speak someone might hear words that encourage, words that motivate or give hope.

If I speak will anyone be allowed to listen?

Of Spiders and Bees, Sin and Salvation

Like a spider into a bee’s honey

We’re drawn, not by the sin, but by the taste: sex drugs money.

Though the sweet smell of the nectar loses its flavor,

Still needing more, we cannot quench the savor.

Down we dive further and further until its too late.

The yearning grows stronger. The hunger overtakes.

We are no longer able to discern any way out.

The sap no longer sticks put seeps into our pours.

What was once external now internal;

Seizing the ethereal in a worthless trade of the eternal.

Muck, grime, decay; we smell of it.

Covering ourselves with perfumes of wealth and success

Nothing helps they add to the swill of it.

Stains that will not be covered.

Worth not measured by the number of lovers.

We glance in the mirror but see a false reflection

Blinding ourselves:  Justifications, rationalizations, deflections.

Nonetheless, there is someone who truly sees.

Not through a glass darkly but into our essence he peeks.

We can hide ourselves from family, friends, and passers-by on the streets

But His eyes are undaunted by our masks, lies, and conceits.

Confronted by His gaze how do we respond?

Denying useless, our righteousness revealed a fraud.

Excuses, accusations of fault on others;

We revel in our innocence.

We plead our ignorance.

We question His authority.

We deny our own humanity.

Even as our voices raise to drown out any whispers testifying to our guilt,

Even as our shame convulses our rage,

Even to the point of fists flailing and stones thrown,

He stands:

Still, Quiet, Unyielding.

Our childish tantrum spent.

If we would only look at Him one more time and not simply run back to the hive,

We will see that his hands extend.

His tears wash clean.

Years of decadence melt.

Scales of blindness fall.

Hunger, yearning, thirst; things once unquenchable now dim to irrelevance

Perspective changed we can view things of consequence.

Salvation is transformational.

He does not merely repair the replaceable .

His touch makes water into a new substance wine.

Death becomes life in the presence of the Devine.

Old becomes new lost becomes found.

The solution so childlike, so simple, we easily miss the profound.

So we must choose,

Live fully or be merely alive.

Do we follow the spider to the sweet trap of the calling nectar?

The Light Came: John 1

I began re-reading John this morning. I told myself, as I clicked on the link to the book, that I wanted to read several chapters. I spent the next thirty minutes on the first 18 verses. The following words are my reaction to those verses.

He is the light and where the light shines there is life.
Life that darkness cannot understand.
He is that light that came, but we are blind and cannot see.

God, you made us with your own hands.
Your breath gave life to us.
But we don’t know you , we run from you.

Open our eyes so we can see.
Open our arms so we can receive,
The one who brings glory and grace.

When we will see Him for who He is,
We will testify that He is real.
We will proclaim that the light shines.
We will shout that He has come to us.
From God’s own side
Bringing grace to us.

Praise to God.
Amen.

The Waiting Place

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Jeremiah 29: 11 For I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. 12 Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. 13 You will seek me and find me; when you seek me with all your heart, 14 I will be found by you, says the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations.

Isaiah 30: 21 And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, “This is the way, walk in it,” when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left.

Exodus 24: 12 The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.”

Psalms 25: 5 Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.

Romans 8: 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

You can get so confused that you’ll start into race down long winding roads as a break-necking pace and grind on for miles across weirdish wild space, headed, I fear, toward a most useless place, THE WAITING PLACE….for people just waiting. Waiting for a train to go or a bus to come, or a plane to go or the mail to come, or the rain to go or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow or waiting around for a Yes or No or waiting for their hair to grow. Everyone is just waiting. Waiting for the fish to bite or waiting for wind to fly a kite or waiting around for Friday night or waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake or a pot to boil, or a Better Break or a string of pearls, or a pair of pants or a wig with curls, or Another Chance. Everyone is just waiting. NO! That’s not for you! Somehow you’ll escape all that waiting and staying. You’ll find the bright places where Boom Bands are playing. Oh The Places You Will Go – Dr. Seuss.

I get a real rush when God reveals something new. I love learning God’s lessons. Sometimes, though, I wonder if my feeble mind is capable of absorbing any more information. I remember studying for my comprehensive exams for my doctorate. I was facing three five-hour essay exams. Somehow, I had to digest and organize years of graduate courses. There were moments I thought the task was impossible. My brain could not possibly hold one more fact, concept, or logical argument. There were moments that I seriously worried that my head might actually EXPLODE. It was a very painful process. God’s lessons are sometimes like that. These are periods of intense learning. I have been in the midst of such a time. The question is not “Have I learned everything God has to teach?” But rather, “Am I capable of receiving what God is revealing?” The amazing thing about God’s lessons is that they always come with a freshness. With each new insight, I am astounded by the renewal of my soul that the revelation brings. I do admit, however, that some lessons are more energizing than others. One lesson, in particular, is very difficult to get excited about: The lesson of The Waiting Place.

The old saying is that “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” Most people get a nice warm fuzzy feeling when they hear that God has a plan. We Christians love to quote Jeremiah 29, “For I know the plans I have for you … plans for welfare.” Man, we get pumped when we hear those words. I’m talking shouting time here. AMEN! But when we hear “Wait,” we sulk and pout and fret and ask, “Why!?” Wait must be the most irritating, frustrating, and down-right aggravating word in the English language. This aversion to waiting is not universal. Many societies are puzzled by the American hectic fast-paced life. My travels in Russia showed me quite a different way of life. In Russia waiting is an art form. Russians wait for buses, wait for stores to open, they wait in lines forever it seems. NOT us, we want to go, do, learn, grow, anything but wait. We have fast food, cell phones, high speed internet, drive through laundries. We don’t want to wait for anything.

The great American philosopher, Dr. Seuss, tells us that the Waiting Place is a “most useless place.” God, however, has a very different perspective on waiting. I was surprised how many times the word wait appears in the Bible. Over and over again God is telling people to wait. God tells us to “Be still,” “wait,” “and know that I am God.” When God tells me to “wait,” I usually respond with, “Do I have to?” I mean, is waiting really necessary? God is a mighty, powerful God. He doesn’t have to wait. Why did he tell Moses to climb up some mountain and wait? God was one-hundred percent capable of reaching down from Heaven and handing the tablets of law to Moses right then and there. To me that seems to be a much more efficient way of doing things. Why bother with all of this waiting? I can just see God shaking His head as He replies, “The waiting is for you, not for me.” “The waiting is for me?” I can understand the words but I struggle with understanding. What is this waiting stuff really all about?

The first thing to understand about waiting is that waiting is not a passive, laborious, useless endeavor. When God tells us to wait, He expects us to be attentive, alert. When Jesus led His disciples to the garden on the night of His arrest, He told them to wait while He prayed. Jesus scolded the disciples when He found them sleeping. “Can’t you wait with me?” When we wait on God, it should be a time of anticipation and readiness. My father in law used to have this dog that loved to fetch. She would run after sticks, tennis balls, old rubber hoses, it really did not matter. If someone threw it, she would go get it. Once the game starts, if you were holding the tennis ball (her favorite) she would stand there in front of you, every nerve in her body alert. Her muscles coiled ready to move, waiting for the opportunity to chase that ball. That is what God wants. He wants us alert, ready, anticipating His command to go.

The second insight into waiting starts when we realize that as mere humans, we will go until we drop. It doesn’t matter where we are going as long as we are going. We will, to once again quote the good Dr. Seuss, go “down long winding roads as a break-necking pace and grind on for miles across weirdish wild space.” We will run as far and as fast as we can run and the next thing we know is that we have no idea where we are or how we got there. God tells us to wait, to “be still,” so that we will have direction in our going. God cannot reveal His plan to us unless He can get our attention. We cannot hear the still small whisper through the din of pagers, cell phones, and the screeching of tires. Another problem with our going is that too many times God tells us to go and do, but we say,” Thanks God, I’ll take things from here.” Then, instead of doing God’s will, we are doing our will. We end up going and doing things God never intended for us to go or do. If God says “Go!,” by all means go, but do only the thing He has told you to do and as soon as the task is complete run back to God and wait.

The third aspect of waiting is the place to which God has led me: wait for God’s time. God has a time, a moment, for everything in His plan. We humans have a hard time understanding why things happen when or how they happen. The reason for this difficulty is that we can’t see the entire picture; it’s a problem of perspective. A co-worker introduced me to a little computer game, the object of which was to turn on all the “lights” in a square grid. After a few probing attempts, I was able to solve the puzzle. To anyone watching the solution, it appears as if I am making a series of random, senseless, and even repetitive moves. The difference is a matter of perspective, I know the pattern. I have learned when to make what moves. God’s plan is like that. The major difference is that God is trying to get all of the “lights” on by playing millions of different games at the same time. The moves that God makes must be accurate and must be carried out with precise timing. If we allow Him, God prepares us to carry out certain tasks. The training may be long and arduous, but God makes sure we are ready. Then when the moment is right, and only when the moment is right, even if we wait for days, months or even years, when that moment arrives, God says, “Go get’em kid!”

When I first wrote these words, God had led me to the Waiting Place. I had just gone through a very intensive growth spurt and I finished my doctorate. God had hammered and shaped my spirit through various trials. I knew then that I had not learned everything that God was to teach me, but God was telling me, “You are ready. I have prepared you for the task at hand. There is only one thing left for you to do: wait!”

If I had only known then what was in store. Wonderful days as a father watching my sons grow into young men, rewarding years working with incredible people, but also stinging disappointments and loss. In many ways, I am still waiting but that is ok. I will keep working and preparing for whatever comes next.

Mass History or Hysteria?

Then the whole town went out to meet Jesus. And when they saw him, they pleaded with him to leave their region. (Matthew 8:34)

There is something about the psychology of human beings that clings to the notion that we know what is right.  There is an innate compulsion to convince ourselves that we make good choices, that we can discern good from evil.  Even if we can admit that, individually, we are prone to mistakes, collectively, as a society or species, we are able to choose wisely.  We have convinced ourselves through our history and our dogma that the collective “WE” of humanity is righteous and wise.

In Humanism we even created a secular religion built on the supposition that our rationality is the supreme source of what is right and good. “Man is at last becoming aware that he alone is responsible for the realization of the world of his dreams, that he has within himself the power for its achievement,” declares the humanist.

Our public discourse and political debate is immersed in discussing the majority opinion as if there is some inherent goodness in the opinion of that fifty-percent plus one that elevates a thought to the status of “correct.”  As if collective amnesia seizes a community; forcing all past wrongs done in the name of the majority into oblivion. As a species we laugh at the farcical herd mentality of the lemming but the sad reality is, that lemming is us.

Beware if you find yourself agreeing too whole-heartedly with the crowd.  Even a cursory, clear-eyed examination of human history reveals troubling patterns of mass hysteria.  Crowds, societies, the entire world swept up in horrific events which were sanctioned and blessed by the majority.  Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, Stalin, Salem, Sand Creek, Nankin, St. Bartholomew, Nero; names associated with some of the great atrocities in human history. The tragedy is that humanity has compartmentalized these events as gross exceptions.  In general, we counter when confronted with such events, humanity is good.  We argue that we learn from the error of our ways.  We right the wrongs of the evil among us and build a better benevolent world.  But is it the collective, the majority, that strives for betterment? Or is it “A voice of ONE calling in the desert?”

Kierkegaard tells us, “Even though every individual possesses the truth, when he gets together in a crowd, untruth will be present at once, for the crowd is untruth.”  But one can stand and in standing alone they are justified. Just as we separate out the evil among us, we tokenize those who stood alone as we recite the litany of solitary heroes:  Dietrich Bonhoeffer stood to defend the defenseless while admiring throngs cheered the horrors of Hitler, Gandhi whose peaceful disobedience defied the British Empire, Rosa Parks sitting alone at the front of the Bus.  Yet while we cheer, we lack any understanding.

The unadulterated truth of humanity is that the WE is prone to lead us all astray.  The collective wisdom of our community has failed us over and again.  Countless is the number of innocent good people who have suffered torment and death at the hands of the crowd.  Even the most perfect of us to walk the dust of this earth was condemned by the masses.

Christ was condemned by the crowd.  Everyone is familiar with the frenzied masses at the public trial overseen by Pontius Pilot.  But, that is not the only occasion that Christ was rejected by the crowd.  He was ushered out of town when, in the act of freeing a man lost to “demons”, he impinged on the economic fortunes of the good town-folk. Two separate incidents detailed in the book of John show crowds who attempted to stone Jesus because of disagreement with His teaching. His neighbors in Nazareth, instead of seeing the Messiah, could not get past their shared memories of Him as the son of Mary and Joseph.  The wisdom of the WE proclaimed that Christ should be eliminated.

In Christ we find the true source of change of righteousness.  He stood alone against the thronging crowd of history.  It is instructive that he stood trial alone, died alone, rose alone.  Alone he died and rose so that WE, the human race could claim no credit for our own salvation.  His example should also serve to remind us “A student is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master.”

We are called to follow.  In following we will find ourselves standing alone.  But to stand alone against the crowd is a better way.  We forget at our own peril that misery loves company.

God is not a Hover Parent

Modern men and women have a great deal of difficulty understanding or believing a God that allows bad things to happen to people in general and even a harder time understanding how God would allow atrocities to be carried out on the innocents.   To many today the concept that “God loves” must directly translate into “God takes care of.”  In order for a God that loves to exist, God must shield his creation from poverty, death, discomfort, disease, disability, hate, offense, and any other sort of “bad” thing.  Since those maladies exist and inflict themselves on the innocent, God must not exist.  Over and again people mock “If you are God …” and when God doesn’t meet the implied expectation people complete their own thought by claiming, “Since you didn’t … you can’t be God.”

To a certain degree the aforementioned line of reasoning has always existed.   Job’s wife and friends posited the absence of God as she watched Job suffer.  Currently, however, the clamoring has intensified.  The vitriol has increased, as people speak in harsh terms as God is denounced.  Why has denying God taken such a vocal and aggressive tone?   To me, the answer lies in and interconnected with a change in how people view their relationship to each other and the world around them.  Perceptions of God’s existence and character have a symbiotic and self-re-enforcing relationship with perceptions of the practices of parenting and the interaction between individuals and their community.

Our concept of God does not fit with our practices as a society nor as parents.  The day seems to have passed when there was a strong analogy between how God loves his creation and how fathers and mothers love their children or how we as a community should love our neighbors.   Today the overriding characteristic that defines a good parent or government is one that shelters and provides for children and citizens in every aspect of their lives.  In the realm of child-rearing the hover parent has become the norm.  Parents not only inject themselves into little-league sports and toddler beauty pageants, they are active participants in the college lives of their young adults and recently parents have invaded the job-searches and careers of their adult children.  Not being satisfied in controlling and hovering over the lives of their children, the latest generation of parents have extended the scope of their over-protective angst to the public sphere, insisting that the government become the hover-parent of the citizenry.  Cradle to grave swaddling clothes to protect everyone from the dangers inherent in life.

If one holds such an unreasonable, suffocating, and all-inclusive view of parenting and governing it is logical therefore, that any God that might exist should adhere to the same level of coddling of their creation.  Unfortunately, the God chronicled in the Old and New Testaments does not meet these expectations.  Good people suffered, children died unreasonably, poverty, slavery, prostitution and evil exist in bountiful amounts.  Further, the everyday life of this existence demonstrates that bad things happen randomly inexplicably.  So what type of God could exist that allows such a world to be created?  A divine-less universe thrown together by random accidents makes a more sensible explanation for the chaos witnessed throughout human history.

The answer to “what type of God” would create an existence of good and bad, trials and failures, laughter and sorrowful weeping; the kind of God that is reflected in fathers and mothers of generations past, the kind of God reflected in the great enlightenment writings of Newton, Locke, and yes even some local scholars by the names of Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin.  People who understood that we were created to choose our own way even if it meant suffering negative consequences.  The parable of the Prodigal Son should be embraced as an example of how complex the relationship between parent and child, between God and creation truly is.  God created humanity and let us choose to run away.  Parents give life and nurture and should stand back and allow the same opportunity.

The irony of hover-parenting/governing and like expectations of God, is that all-embracing removal of need eliminates, or at least mitigates, one of the most amazing aspects of human nature:  compassion.  The projection of care onto some higher entity be it God or the State, removes that inner compulsion that drives us to reach out to each other.  We become desperately separate; insulated by an abstract sense that things are taken care of instead of clinging to each other with desperate love.

That immensely hunger-driven love to wait by the door hoping that your son comes home, that they chose you; that is God like love.  The unexplainable desire to go where-ever people are suffering the most is God-like love.  Caring and loving in the worst possible circumstances not the absence of those circumstances is love, not rational or tidy, but real love.  From such a perspective, God can be seen.  Right relationships between our-selves, each other, our Creator, and our community become comprehensible.   We have, like an old family portrait lost in the attic, forgotten how we are related, and like distant relatives we sit in awkward silence.  Perhaps if we open the family album we might be able to rebuild the ties that bind as they were intended.

Meditation on Matthew Chapter One

Fourteen generations from Abraham to David – fourteen generations for God’s promise to be made complete.

God promised a nation.  God promised descendants that would number the stars and the sand.   Despite greed, disobedience, deceit, and all other manner of turning away practiced by the people of Israel, God was faithful.  He prodded, begged, and even coerced Israel to follow his will.  Finally in David he established the great Kingdom of Israel which, bolstered by David’s son, Solomon, stood as a beacon of God’s provision and will.

Fourteen generations from David to the exile – fourteen generations for Israel’s conceit to be made complete.

God repeatedly showered blessings upon Israel.  He lifted them up as a nation, despite disobedience and sin.  Even when Israel rejected His leadership and clamored for a king so they would be like the other nations, God blessed them with wealth and prestige.   God showed his grace and mercy yet Israel rebelled.   Exile was not a measure of God’s anger and vengeance against Israel, but that it took fourteen generations shows the depth of God’s patience.

Fourteen generations from the exile to Christ – fourteen generations before humanity was ready to be made complete.

Having rejected the leadership of God and endeavoring to live according to their own hand Israel languished in exile.  Even as Israel returned to rebuild Jerusalem, God’s hand remained distant.   Israel, weakened spiritually and physically, suffered waves of invasion until it was firmly in the hands of Roman masters.   All the while, the promise of restoration remained.  How long will God’s promise be delayed?; became the cry of Israel.  Then at the birth of Christ the anguishing wait came to an end.  God provided the perfect plan of salvation through the sacrifice of His Son.  Sorrowfully many in Israel were not able to recognize the Messiah had come.

Three epochs, fourteen generations each, and human interaction with God’s salvation was established.  While God still moves and the final establishment of His Kingdom remains, His plan is brought to fruition.  Praise be to God who is and was and is to be.

Of Jump-ropes and Mountains

Matthew 17: 14 When they came to the crowd, a man came to him, knelt before him, 15 and said, “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly; he often falls into the fire and often into the water. 16 And I brought him to your disciples, but they could not cure him.” 17 Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him here to me.” 18 And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was cured instantly. 19 Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” 20 He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a  mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, “Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.”

A few years ago, I was cleaning out the disaster zone more commonly know as the boys’ play room and I stumbled across one of those grade school P.E. jump-ropes (actually I nearly broke my neck when my feet became tangled in the pesky thing); you know the ones with the skinny rope encased in colored plastic rings.  I picked it up and looked at it for a brief second then ambled outside to give it a whirl.  I briskly went through the routine of various jumps and steps, then laughed as I thought of the days when jumping rope was hardly so effortless.  For most of us a jump-rope does not represent a major obstacle.  Learning to jump-rope is hardly one of life’s significant rites-of-passage.  For me, however, as a young man that jump-rope symbolized everything that I was and could be.

I was a gangly ninth-grader trying to survive off-season football drills and unfortunately that meant a daily confrontation with the incarnate of evil known as a jump-rope.  Everyday the last task was for us to complete 100 successive jumps with the jump-rope.  Those jumps were the bane of my existence.  I would stumble, trip, and tangle the infernal contraption around every limb.  Everyone would be long gone before I was finished and my older brother would be fuming as he waited for me to bumble my way through the torture.  Believe it or not, that jump-rope was the best thing that ever happened to me.

I was born with some–how shall I say it–challenges to overcome.  You can see one lasting mark of my arrival into this world.  My left ear is folded part-of-the-way over and juts out at a noticeable angle.  You can only imagine the comic value my grade-school classmates found in such a large protruding ear. I guess at this point in my life I could have surgery to repair the ear but I think it serves a purpose.  It reminds me how far I have come and what I have overcome.  Excuse me I got distracted for a moment.  The ear is only a symptom of a rather traumatic early childhood.  I was born with that left ear plastered against my head an outward mark of the trauma to my head.  The internal damage was more significant and as the doctors warned possibly permanent.  My brain suffered damage comparable to having a baseball bat swung at full force.  The doctors told my parents that I might not ever walk or even talk.  Though they were wrong on both counts, I faced some difficult health problems.  Whooping cough before the age of two almost brought a sudden end to my life as I was carried into the emergency room at one point, my body blue from having quit breathing.  I suffered convulsions and radical body temperature fluctuations which caused me to take phenobarbital for most of my childhood.  Looking at me then, you would never believe I would grow into the man I am now.

Despite the health issues, I loved sports and although my parents never coddled me, they were concerned that I would have some difficulties physically (I was a big kid but a little clumsy) and emotionally (how would I react to failures).  So they asked my doctors for advice.  The doctors replied that I would probably never excel but I wouldn’t be hurt in any way and participating in sports could actually help me maximize my some-what limited physical abilities.  I was given the green light and began playing t-ball on my older brother’s team the summer before starting second grade.  I never looked back.

I spent hours throwing and catching.  If no one would play with me, it didn’t matter.  I would toss a football or baseball in the air and run to catch it.  I would play until it was dark and I couldn’t see the ball or my parents would drag me in for dinner.  In those solitary hours I developed a sense of purpose.  I was going to play football.  I didn’t care how hard I had to work to do it.  I was going to be a football player; which leads me back to the jump-rope.

I started playing football in the third grade.  I was pretty good.  I was big and strong and had an unquenchable passion for the game.  As I got older and in junior high I was a starter and the coaches all told me I had potential.  The one glaring weakness I had was a lack of speed and mobility.  Thus the jump-rope.  Everyday the challenge.  Everyday the struggle.  Everyday confronted with failure.  My brother would wait, albeit with no patience.  You see he had to wait because my parents usually had to work and could not give us a ride home.  We lived eight-and-a-half miles from the school and if we didn’t ride the bus home, we had to walk.  The longer it took me to finish those jump-ropes the later and darker it was when we walked home.   Needless to say many late afternoons turned into complete darkness before we arrived home.  The coaches would leave us in the gym and told us to turn off the lights and lock the doors as they left.  I never took advantage of their absence, even though my brother begged me to.  I stayed and finished.  Then we would walk/run home.  Usually running most of the eight plus miles.  Once home, homework and chores were done.  I would collapse into bed knowing that the morning would bring the same challenge.  Why did I keep going back?  Why not admit failure?  Quite simply, the thought of quitting was not an option.  I had made a choice in the deepest part of me that I would do it.  I would conquer the jump-rope.  I would play football.  I willed myself to succeed.

I did succeed.  I never became a superstar football player, but I did start every year I played and received some scholarship offers from Division 2 and NAIA programs.  I played on two state runner-up teams and can look back with pride on what I accomplished.  What about the jump-ropes?  By the time I was a junior I had implemented a rigorous work-out routine.  I began each session with 200 push-ups and 500 sit-ups.  Then, I would do my weight and conditioning for the day.  At the end of every workout, I would grab one of those plastic colored jump-ropes and perform 1500 jumps.  I would jump 750, take a one-minute breath, and then do 750 more.  I had beat the jump-rope.

Now, this is not only a story about my athletic prowess.  The jump-rope was something much bigger.  It was a mountain to climb.  And in climbing I learned that I had strength inside of me to overcome.  That strength has carried me through many struggles.  The lessons taught by the jump-rope helped me overcome a recurrence of seizures when I was in may late teens.  That strength carried me through poverty that included bouts of living in cars and rundown trailers.  That strength helped me finish a doctorate when I faced physical and emotional exhaustion.  When my initial draft of my dissertation came back with scalding remarks.  I didn’t quit.  I rededicated myself to work harder, to relearn things I had deficiencies in, to climb another mountain.  In the end, I did earn the doctorate to rave reviews of the same committee members who had expressed doubt in my academic future.  But without the jump-rope, I truly believe the doctorate would have been impossible.  I thank God for mountains which in climbing them make us stronger.  I thank God for jump-ropes.

Survey the Cross

I meant to post this last week but the trip to Chicago scrambled my internal calander.

Survey the Cross

John 19:  23 When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his clothes and divided them into four parts, one for each soldier … 24 So they said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see who will get it.” This was to fulfill what the scripture says, “They divided my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.” 25 … Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” 27 Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home. 28 After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.” 29 A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. 30 When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

When I Survey the Wondrous Cross!  Ah one of those old hymns.  I would guess that most of us over the age of 35 are familiar with this hymn.  The youngest among us may not know it, but if you are curious go Google the lyrics.  Either way most of us probably have never stopped to take in the meaning of that phrase?  What was the author saying, when he penned those words, “survey the wondrous cross?”

I was driving between Dallas and Austin one evening, and that question came to me.  I had been listening to an alternative Christian radio station out of Dallas and was rather enjoying the rock/edgy music.  Unfortunately, the signal faded before I reached Hillsboro, and I still had two hours of driving to reach Austin.  So I fumbled with the seek button on the radio until I heard this rich Scottish accented voice coming from my speakers.  As I listened, I heard an incredible, impassioned argument as to why Christians needed to put the Cross back into the center of our RELIGION.  The sermon ended, or the station faded; I don’t remember which happened first. I drove on in silence for quite some time.  Then the title of the hymn leapt into my mind: When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.  No sooner had the phrase entered my mind, when the thought struck me; “Wow, SURVEY the Cross, cool.” You probably are thinking, “what is so cool about ‘Survey the Cross’,” but that’s okay.  Hopefully by the time we are finished you will understand.

I think it is interesting that the author chose the word survey.  Depending on the context, the word survey can have a couple of different meanings.  In college, if you took a survey course, it was a broad overview of a particular subject.  You could, for example, take each section of American History separately, or you could take the American History Survey.  In this sense, survey means to step back and take a look at the big picture.

A second definition of survey is to take a careful measurement of.  If you have a piece of property and you want to build a house on it, normally you will have a survey done to mark the precise boundaries of your property.  A few years ago an oil company hired a firm to survey the town in which we were living and surrounding area.  The goal of the oil company was to find any oil and natural gas so that they might be able drill new wells.  In order to find these oil or gas deposits, they needed exact measurements of the country-side.  The firm hired to do this task spent weeks and months using radio signals to make a map of the area.  The key for the oil company was that the map must be accurate or the information would be useless.  Survey, in this context means to take a detailed account.

You may be asking yourself, “What do oilfield surveys and college courses have to do with the cross?”  I ask that you would indulge me for a moment longer.  I promise, at least I hope, this will all make sense in the end.  You see, I believe the author purposely chose to use the word SURVEY.  In this case he meant the latter definition: To take a careful measurement.  While there is nothing wrong with looking at the big picture, I think the author is saying that he is taking a careful measurement of the cross, taking it all in.  He is not simply glancing at the cross in an off-handed manner.  Nor is he merely passing by.  To Survey the Cross, implies to take a serious account of the Cross, to really study it.

Have you ever been driving along a familiar road and suddenly saw something that you have never noticed before?  It happens to me all of the time.  I think it happens to men more than it happens to women.  I can just hear this conversation between a man and wife as the husband is driving along a country road. (I am just saying the husband is driving for purposes of illustration.  I am fully aware that wives have been granted the constitutional right to drive, even in the presence of a man.)  The man notices a big red barn,

“Marge, when did the Johnsons build that new barn?”

“Henry,” the wife answers, “That barn has been there for ten years.  You drive by it every day.”

I have a feeling that many Christians are that way about the Cross.  We come to church every Sunday and sometimes even on Wednesday night.  Some of us are Sunday School teachers or on the Church Board.  But, we don’t even seem to notice the Cross.  Every once in a while, we look up and by some accident catch a glimpse of it and, like the husband ask, “Well look at that, I wonder how long that Cross has been there?”

I believe that God requires more than a passing glance at the cross.  I believe that the sacrifice of Jesus deserves a complete and detailed accounting.  We as Christians need to stop our bustling activities (and I am talking about Church work here) and take a good hard look at the Cross.  We need that image, the image of Christ hanging on the Cross, His body bruised and broken, His shoulders bowed with the weight of our sin; we need that image of the Cross burned into our minds.

The Cross is the center-piece of what we as Christians embrace.  I recently had someone ask me why Good Friday was called Good Friday.  In answer, I explained that it was on that Friday that Christ gave His life on the Cross.  The person responded, “That’s what I mean.  How can it be called GOOD, when Jesus died?”  The answer is that because Jesus DIED it is GOOD Friday.  If Jesus had not died, the price for our sin would not have been paid.  On the Cross, Jesus won the VICTORY.  He took our place.  He took our SIN.  On the Cross, the power of SIN was cancelled and the battle ended when Jesus cried out “IT IS FINISHED.”  The Lord breathed these words not in anguish, but in VICTORY.  This is the full measure of the Cross!

We cannot expect the world to preserve the sanctity of the Cross.  I mean, if we expect the Cross to be something more that an intriguing fashion accessory on necklaces or ear-rings, we cannot leave the Cross in the hands of the world.  We as Christians must make the effort to Survey the Cross on a regular basis.  If we don’t, we will find ourselves in the place of that husband.  I know you wives can relate to that.  If we aren’t really paying attention, we will be like that man, who six months after that divine revelation that the neighbors built a big new red barn TEN YEARS AGO drives down the same road and looks up and proclaims, “Well look at that.  When did the Johnsons build a new barn?”  If we don’t take a regular survey of the Cross we, as Christians, will continue to walk around blindly, only too infrequently and accidently looking up to notice the Cross and muse, “Well look at that.  Wonder when they put that big cross up in the sanctuary?”

So I challenge you to survey the wondrous Cross.  Take a close look.  What do you see?  Do you see the coarse heavy wood that made the beam that caused Christ to stumble?  Can you see the holes where the nails pierced Jesus’ wrists?  Did you notice the blood stains?  Did you see the sign above His head?  Go ahead, take a look.  It is all there.  Survey the Cross!  Soak it all in.  Let the image of the Cross burn itself into your soul.  And it’s okay if you come back from time to time to take another look.  You never know when you might see something new.  “Well look at that. I never noticed those threads from Jesus’ garments before.”

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